Terror and ill health: the bear truth about childhood adversity

Dr Nadine Harris delivered this stunning TED MED talk in 2014. She gives the bear in the woods an important walk-on part. A paediatrician herself, she tells how a child’s ‘dose’ of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) creates clearly higher rates of health problems. And that’s not just mental health troubles, but physical ones too …  all the way to suicide.

The bear truth

Dr Harris talks of how the body switches on the fear-fight-flight systems if you happen to meet a bear in the woods. Then she adds: “What happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again?”

The constant experience of ‘fright without solution’ amounts to the pattern of disorganised Attachment and terror described by Alexandra Stein.  We reviewed her book here because it shows how ‘all harmful coercion works’.

If you map ACEs and Attachment terror together, we build a strong case that links what children experience in the middle of high conflict separations and the cult-like stress of Alienation to the immediate and long-term physical and mental harm it helps cause.

It’s emotional abuse

That proven mental and physical ill health and harm from sustained emotional stress is what shows that in high conflict family separation we’re in the domain of emotional abuse, not just of insignificant passing upset in children.

Children have little power. They just have to suffer.  Adults are responsible. Family, friends, agencies and professionals could do more about it. We could learn about it, say something … anything more than being just a bystander.

Faced with this, adults make something that’s difficult worse than it needs to be. That means we’re dealing with an evil not just a tragedy.*

This sustained stress and its health consequences applies to adults too. But even sticking just to the children, Dr Harris has to wonder why people still don’t take it as seriously as they would any other health threat to children.

She suggests we all tend to choose the familiar bystander thinking: Oh, it’s ok, this stuff doesn’t happen to me, to us, to my kind of people. Plus: What can I do about it anyway?

Dr Harris reminds the audience that ACEs have indeed happened to them, to us.  And to me and you readers as well.

There is very good reason for us all to take this human and proven evil much more seriously.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

* The link is to a 42 min talk by Jordan Peterson on Tragedy vs Evil. He summarises at: 39.30.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. Mark

    Nick – I quite agree with your assessment that this is emotional abuse and that it also represents evil. Why this escapes people – particular professionals – is mind-boggling. Turning this tide is key to solving the problem.

    Thanks for this post.


    • Thanks Mark. The question about why this (abuse and evil) escapes people and professionals is a big one that we are all trying to understand and tackle across the world. But it linked to a fine TV drama documentary running just now “Three Girls” in the UK about the years of grooming and sexual, emotional and physical abuse of disadvantaged white girls mainly by organised groups of Asian men.

      In last night’s episode the hero, a sexual health worker who can see that these teenage girls are victims of crime and abuse, rages at the other professionals around the table, social work especially. The social worker has already categorised the teenage girls and their active pursuit of their abused lives as a lost cause. The girls are obnoxious, apparently fully choosing to be “prostitutes”, and close to the age when, as adults, they can be forgotten about by child-care systems.

      So here – right in front of a table full of professionals whose job it should be to do something about what the sexual health worker is reporting – there is complete systemic blinkers. The social worker is only interested in rescuing the teenager’s unborn baby into care. She is actively disinterested in the bad teenager mother or her situation or needs.

      This is the kind of active system’s ignorance going on with the general and professional ignorance of PA. With the several towns with this sexual grooming and abuse going on, it took years of fighting – basically against politically correct resistance (to naming the race of the group of men doing the grooming and abuse) – to get the world to sit up and take notice and action. It’s taking decades for PA too. And the professional reasons are the same – ideological and political correctness that it hard for anyone to see past.

      My interest in my thinking here on this blog and elsewhere is to explore and define these wider contexts of PA and the ignorance. Simple shouting about it and being ignored ideologically has not done the trick too well over decades. It’s worth looking at other frames of reference, other strategies too.


  2. Mark - Pennsylvania USA

    Nick – thank you for the thoughtful response. You are quite right to draw attention to the awful rape situation that occurred in the UK a few years ago. In the name of political correctness, these girls literally had their lives sacrificed. There is a strong element of political correctness in those forces aligned against those of us fighting parental alienation – in addition to the evil and ignorance. And children are being sacrificed on the same altar. It is appalling. Keep up the good work.


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