The Cards You’re Dealt: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Resilience and Youth Policy in Scotland

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  To access the full article click here.

The Scottish Government has stated its intention of making Scotland the first ‘ACE-aware’ nation. Preventing and reducing ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and the desire to build resilience, is now solidly secured in Scottish policy rhetoric and approaches to childhood and youth practice. As critical social researchers, we investigate social spaces with a view to providing an analysis that support policies that can reduce harms to young people, and begin to tackle (or at least understand) the embedded inequities that they face. Sometimes this means that we have to challenge what have become well-intentioned approaches by progressive policy makers.

Drawing on qualitative research in two Scottish suburban localities, our article explored the growth of resilience-focused youth policy in Scotland and compared this to young people’s own experiences of growing up. There are two important foci for our research. Both studies were carried out in economically and socially deprived neighbourhoods and were able to make young people’s lived experiences of poverty and inequity more visible. Second, the studies involved extensive periods of time in the neighbourhoods talking and listening to young people. This gave us the opportunity to hear young people’s lived perspectives relative to resilience-informed practice.

Supporters of the ACE agenda argue that there is unequivocal evidence from a range of (mainly US-based) studies that specific stressful or traumatic events experienced in childhood, such as violence at home, neglect, abuse, or experiences of substance misuse or mental illness, breakdown of family relationships or imprisonment of a family member, can result in the excessive activation of ‘stress’ response systems in the body and the brain. Described as ‘toxic stress’, the consequences are a negative and lasting impact on a person’s health and well-being throughout their life. Preventing ACEs – or at least having early recognition and intervention systems in place to reduce their impacts – has (amongst other things) prioritised resilience building. Being resilient, put simply, can help young people ‘bounce back’ from adversities. In Scottish policy, this means building young people a strong base, and supporting their self-esteem and self-efficacy.

We support and champion all work that endeavours to support vulnerable young people in Scotland, and address the inequity that underpins adversity. However, our concern is that the ACE-movement projects an intensified, asset-based approach to resilience focused on ‘steeling’ young people, and building individual resistance to adversity. This, we believe, obscures the persistent material inequalities that the young people we spoke to face.

Michael Ungar describes resilience as a dual process, with the individual pushing out, while ‘the world’ is reciprocating with opportunities. However, in our research, this notion of a wider caring society returning with choices and chances was often not present. Its absence had consequences. With nothing to ‘push’ out onto, young people (especially those most vulnerable) were quick to disengage with services and support. That is not to say that these young people had low aspirations – but rather they had low expectations of these aspirations being realised.   Moreover, in both areas of research young people rehearsed familiar stories about how their neighbourhood was seen by outsiders. Their communities were habitually regarded as ‘problem’ places and, by default, so were they and their families. Navigating these perceptions took their toll, as did the very real material consequences of growing up in a poor family, in a poor neighbourhood, with a poor social infrastructure.

Crucially, what we found was that the definition of resilience as expressed policy did not match the lived experience of the young people we spent time with. Reflecting other research, tight networks within young people’s own micro-geographies were common, exemplified by strong networks of extended families and friends. These networks helped young people function, and even have status in their social groups. But they did not necessarily help them succeed against broader normative expectations such as gaining educational qualifications or getting long-term, stable employment. For some young people, engaging in actions that were not socially sanctioned, such as ‘anti-social’ behaviours or substance use, could be regarded as ‘resistance-as-resilience’. It was a logical, functional way of ‘getting by’ in a deprived place.

Maybe it’s the current zeitgeist where we have to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ something; maybe we’re not explaining the nuances of our arguments well enough; maybe there’s a fragility to some of the ‘scientific’ evidence that underpins the resilience and ACEs agenda. Whatever the case, our investigations with young people tell us that we need to continue to interrogate and challenge, where necessary, policies like the ACE movement, that can over-emphasise changing, and even normalising, individual young people. Instead, our work should be squarely focused on addressing the long-term structural inequalities that make adverse experiences – throughout the life course – more likely to occur.

 About the authors

Emma Davidson is a Leverhulme Early Career Senior Research Fellow and co-director of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh.

Eric Carlin is a Teaching Fellow at Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh.


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