May 15, 2022
From The Commoner

‘The hallmark of political anarchism is its opposition to the established order of things: to the state, its institutions, the ideologies that support and glorify these institutions. The established order must be destroyed so that human spontaneity may come to the fore and exercise its right of freely initiating action, of freely choosing what it thinks is best.’

Paul Feyerabend. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) are potentially traumatic events that occur to us before the age of 18. It is thought that children experience a toxic stress response to these experiences, and that this toxic stress alters the biochemistry of neuroendocrine systems. Exposure to adverse childhood experiences affect our development, and this leads to mental and physical health problems for children and adults. Adults with multiple adverse childhood experiences may have difficulty forming loving relationships; struggle with depression and anxiety; and have poor physical health outcomes, including shortened life expectancy. Furthermore, the effects of adverse childhood experiences can also be passed on to children, so there can be a trans-generational aspect to adverse childhood experiences. ‘Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.’

We can see that adverse childhood experiences can impact people’s economic situation; there may be an increased likelihood of poverty as a result of adverse childhood experiences. Economic inequality is oppressive and traumatic in and of itself. As we will see, a child in poverty starts life with at least one ACE just because they do not have enough to eat.

The first research into adverse childhood experiences took place in the United States at Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997. ‘The study’s participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated San Diegans with good jobs and great health care – they all belonged to the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization.’ The ACE questionnaire used in the study had ten yes/no questions asking participants about childhood experiences of violence, abuse and neglect. The participants scored one point for each yes, and zero points for each no, yielding a total ACE score out of ten.

We will look at and discuss the questions in more detail below, but in essence what the study showed was that as each participant’s ACE score increased, so did their chances of ‘disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1,220 percent.’ The research and evidence seemed to confirm that there are often social causes for mental and physical health challenges, and that what happens to us as children has far greater consequences on us as adults than was previously thought.

This study was conducted on middle-class people. It could be that economic family privileges under capitalism, like inherited wealth or private-school education and networks, ensures some people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences do not necessarily live in poverty. They may live with anxiety and heart disease, but still be a stockbroker. It seems reasonable to conclude from this study that wealth does not necessarily protect people.

Shockingly, ‘Adverse childhood experiences are common. About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states in America reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more.’ Nearly two thirds of the population of the United States of America have reported at least one traumatic experience as a child.

The evidence challenged the model of mental and physical health that says that there is something wrong with me because I am defective in some way. This model of innate biological defectiveness is the one that people usually use to explain their physical and mental health problems, but in fact poor mental and physical health is a complex relationship between social, economic, psychological, and biological factors. This might otherwise be known as the biopsychosocial model for understanding mental health.

We understand that although poverty can amplify or increase adverse childhood experiences, it is not material conditions alone that create Adverse Childhood Experiences. As anarchists we address all aspects of inequality. We live within multiple hierarchies, with most of us towards the bottom of those hierarchies, and many people will experience some kind of abuse, trauma, and oppression. Within families I have not met any parent who deliberately wanted to harm their child in the last thirty years of working with families, children, and young people. But we live in a toxic system, and the way we organise families, is fertile ground for abuse, not because of the people, but because of the very nature of hierarchy itself. Those at the top of a hierarchy inevitably have power over those at the bottom.

An interpretation of the ACE’s questions

ACE questions 1 – 3

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often … Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often … Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? Or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever … Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

We know that all children are vulnerable by their very nature as children, but adults are supposed to look after children. So what goes wrong? Why do adults or parents, who should love their children, sometimes commit acts of violence upon them?

It is within the very nature of hierarchy that we can always see the danger of violence, abuse, and oppression. Children are always within these hierarchies when they are with adults in our society, even with the adults that love them. In a hierarchy, one person or group of people have authority and power over others, derived from status, economic resources, and characteristics such as strength, age, or through the political-legal process. Such people have the power to make the decisions for others, to oppress, control and change the behaviour of others, and dominate the scope of the particular hierarchy. They can do this in a number of ways; benignly by persuasion, rewards, and reason, or malignantly through punishment, coercion, and violence. What is always clear is that the oppressor fails to apprehend the oppressed as a free human being, who should be accorded dignity, respect and choice. For the oppressor, the oppressed are just material objects to dominate.

The ‘#MeToo’ movement demonstrated the prevalence of sexual assault and rape by those in positions of power and authority. ‘Far and away, most sexual assaults and sexual violence are perpetrated by men, and typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.’ It should not surprise us, therefore, that within a hierarchical institution which has an asymmetrical power dynamic, such as the family, violent acts are sometimes perpetrated on children within that family as exertions of power and control. The parents hold authority and power derived from their existence as adults, and the scope is huge and encompasses almost the whole life of the child.

While we might imagine that it would, parental love does not always mitigate against the inherent danger of hierarchy. The desire to objectify and possess ‘the other’ can be part of our inauthentic carer/child relationships. Parental language is often riddled with discussion about their children as objects in relation to themselves: e.g., ‘he has my eyes’, or ‘he is lazy, like you’. Parents see aspects of themselves reflected back in their children, rather than seeing their children as free individuals: they see them as objects. They see them as ‘their’ objects’, to be defined, possessed, and controlled. This particular relationship is heightened because of children being created by parents, and because of family resemblances.

All kinds of beliefs and values are also wrapped around ‘our’ children, who are unable to speak or challenge these assumptions. For example, adults may say that their children are manipulative, or liars, or angry, but in reality these are simply reactions or attitudes towards an oppressive relationship, not an essence or personality or a ‘self’.

Love, rather than mitigating dangers of hierarchy, can sometimes actually increase the dangers to a child, as the ‘object of love’ refuses to comply with instructions and parental beliefs, and insists on their individual freedom. Children can react with anger and frustration, or withdraw completely as they react to any false claims about them. In an effort to control and possess, the parent can commit acts of violence upon ‘their’ child.

ACE questions 4 – 5

4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

The discovery of the Romanian orphanages after Soviet-aligned dictator Nicolai Ceausescu was overthrown informed much of the research on neglect. ‘They found many profound problems among the children who had been born into neglect. Institutionalised children had delays in cognitive function, motor development and language. They showed deficits in socio-emotional behaviours and experienced more psychiatric disorders. They also showed changes in the patterns of electrical activity in their brains, as measured by EEG [electroencephalograph].‘ Again, the very existence of children within a hierarchy opens up possibilities of the absence of action, as a means of control; i.e., neglect.

We know that patterns of coercive control, withdrawing of love, stonewalling, not meeting needs, and hoarding and conserving material resources, are aspects of abuse. Within hierarchical systems we see these patterns all the time; in governments who decide on the distribution of resources, frequently refusing money and resources to supposedly undeserving citizens. In families, parents and carers decide on clothes, toys, and other resources, depending on the child’s behaviour or other often arbitrary or capricious criteria. It is not novel to connect the hierarchy of state and family; feminist critics like Carol Patemen have long theorised the connection being fatherhood and the paternal dominance of the State. This is abuse and oppression by commission, to visibly exert control over those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

These neglect patterns can also exist by omission. A person may be emotionally and materially neglectful because they are in poverty, and are struggling to make ends meet. There could also be other beliefs, other trauma, blocking the giving of love and material resources to their children. Even in these cases, where there is not commissioned exertion of power and control, the very fact of the hierarchy makes the child unsafe. The dependence on the parent who is unable to meet needs, a parent who is probably a victim of multiple hierarchies and systemic oppression themselves, means the child experiences toxic stress. In fact, other hierarchies often take over in these cases; schools, churches, or social services, for example. They step into the deficit and provide food and resources for the child. Some schools provide nurture provision to make up for the emotional neglect the child has experienced. But they also become abusers

ACE questions 6 – 10

6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Or sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? Or ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

10. Did a household member go to prison?

These questions are indicative of trans-generational abuses and oppression. Of course, all the questions do indicate trans-generational patterns, but these identify parents who are obviously struggling and suffering from their own adverse childhood experiences. Their child is now born into a hierarchy that has instability built in. The rules of the hierarchy may be unclear. It may be scary. It may be dangerous. The problem of hierarchies, and of being at the bottom of the hierarchy, is that we don’t determine the conditions or outcomes.

Adverse childhood experiences occur within families which are hierarchical institutions within capitalist society. Hierarchies are inherently dangerous for those towards the bottom, and create opportunities for violence, abuse and neglect because the oppressor regards the oppressed as an object. So the hierarchical family provides the conditions for adverse childhood experiences. The number of adverse childhood experiences suffered by a child tells us much about the degree of hierarchical damage done to that child.

Parental or carer love can sometimes amplify the oppressors’ tendency to make an object of the oppressed. Parents/carers can form relationships with their children as ‘the other’ and can define, control, and possess them. Parents/carers create these relationships in that moment of judgement; a judgement often formed from values brought about by their own trans-generational trauma, but those being oppressed are created as ‘this’ or ‘that’ for all time. These are relationships of oppression, firstly through hierarchy, and secondly through inauthentic parental love, and they create oppressed identities for children as they become adults. As adults, we may think of ourselves in the way that our oppressors, our parents/carers, thought of us.

We understand then:

i) That the hierarchical family can create oppressed identities for children through the quality of the oppressive relationships, and;

ii) That the quantity of adverse childhood experiences is the degree of hierarchical damage caused by the family. This damage creates physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Early oppression is deadly.

There are broader conclusions we can draw too. It can be argued that these experiences embed acceptance and submission to other hierarchies and oppression. Moreover, as adults, we may continue to experience toxic stress every time we experience further oppression, which negatively impacts our life expectancy and happiness.

What is crucial to understand is that prevention measures and solutions that do not explicitly acknowledge that it is the hierarchical nature of the family which actually creates the conditions for adverse childhood experiences to exist, will create further problems for children, families, and adults. If we create social networks for people, who may have experienced trauma in childhood, or are currently experiencing adverse childhood experiences, and those social networks are also hierarchical, we run a high risk of creating further problems, further toxic stress, and further illness.

Nevertheless, even if our oppressed identity is ingrained and we have a high degree of hierarchical damage, and an ACE score of four or more, we can still change the inevitable outcomes towards feeling physically better, and emotionally happier. It is important that we can and do repair the damage to us, and also prevent further damage to children, including our own children. By acknowledging and understanding the damage we ourselves have suffered within the hierarchy of the family, we can look forward to being, and to raising, creative, authentic individuals who are healthy and happy, and who do not accept or submit that we have to organise in a hierarchical way. As anarchists, we are perhaps best posed to challenge this structure since we stand opposed to all forms of dominance.

In the second part of this essay, I will reflect further on the hierarchy of the family and propose how it might be remedied through community mutual aid.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

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