Christine “Cissy” White is leading a movement to make sure that parents with high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scores have the resources and support they need to end the trend of generational trauma that so many have inherited and unknowingly passed on to their children. The voice of the parent is first and foremost in Cissy’s plan of action. To reach this goal, Cissy had to first find her own voice, which she has done brilliantly through writing, speaking and leading workshops. Cissy is a parent advocate and a leader in the ACEs movement. She has created a network of colleagues, parents, and facilitators working to ensure healthy families across the country regardless of a parent’s ACEs score. Read Cissy’s story, in her words, raw, unfiltered and filled with honesty about her lived experience as a child of extreme adversity who grew up to find that she was also resilient.
“Too often those with ACE scores are treated as failed prevention rather than people rich with necessary information, resilience, and resources.
Parents with ACEs carry the impact of trauma into all aspects of our daily lives even after ACEs. Plus, no one has more impact on kids than parents.” – Cissy White
Cissy describes her lived expertise as a child with extreme adversity:
“One thing I always think about is, you know, as a kid, I didn’t know it was trauma. As an adult, I think it’s good for all of us to remember that kids have no language for what they’re experiencing. They don’t know anybody is experiencing anything different. That was certainly true for me.
So, for me, the worst trauma was really the things that showed up in schools that made me embarrassed with my peers because I was so focused on what the other kids thought as well as pleasing my teachers. Really early on for me, my trauma history showed up in school as just being super distracted because, I mean, this is kind of personal but I’m sure teachers have seen this – I was dirty.
I had lice as a kid and it wasn’t treated, so I would be worried and distracted. Instead of focusing on the classroom activities, I was hoping that nobody could see any of the lice that were coming out of my hair. Or, I was hungry, so I was focused on that. Or, I wet the bed as a kid and didn’t know how to clean up after myself when I was really little.
I was aware that I was smelly, so I would do things like hold my breath and hope others didn’t smell me. I mean, just having that kid mind and obviously not focused on school in those cases. I was just really consumed with those daily things that were distracting.
I guess I’d remind teachers, I was an excellent student. I was a good student, but I was barely paying attention. I was kind of, like, recording what the teachers were saying more than I was being there, and then when I went home I might try to absorb stuff when I was older, or study on my own, but being in school, in and of itself, it was trying to blend in and be invisible and hope I wasn’t being noticed.
Mornings were really rushed. My mom was 16 when she had my sister and had me and my brother before she was 21. She was a single mom and she had cancer. Life at home was chaotic, so mornings, especially, were harried. My mother just getting us out the door and to school … She also worked the night shift, so she was exhausted in the morning. Absolutely exhausted.
She was really tired, and mornings were just chaotic, so before we even got to school … That was back in the day where there were free breakfasts at school, so we were able to eat at school, but just getting to school was really, really hectic, and I was, honestly, I didn’t know it at the time but I was really kind of checked out because there was sexual abuse in the home and step-family…
Things were going on at home which I didn’t know weren’t going on for other kids, so I was just showing up at school kind of somewhat dazed, but I didn’t know it as a kid. So, I think, I just seemed … I did not engage with teachers at all. And I really liked school, so that’s one thing I really wanted to tell teachers is, you might be reaching kids just by being consistent, kind, and having an orderly classroom.
I think I’d love teachers to know that for me, I didn’t need anyone to try to be a therapist in terms of being a teacher. Just a teacher that was kind, and curious, and patient.
I got to see school … I loved going to school because it was really predictable. Things started and ended on time, people were generally friendly. I really liked the consistency and the routine. Just that, in and of itself, was incredibly healing and stabilizing for me. So, I think, sometimes when we talk about trauma, people get afraid of what that means, but I think being really safe is the antidote for trauma. Providing just a safe routine and regular place is especially important for kids with a trauma history.
Just having patience or understanding, or realizing that if they’re smelly or itchy or hungry or going through stuff, they’re pretty consumed with other tasks besides school, but it’s not because … I always wanted to be doing well. If I was consumed with something else – it was embarrassment or shame. I felt like when I went through school, when I look back on it now, it’s like I was going to school all the time with an emotional flu. So, trying to concentrate through something that’s taking precedence over you physiologically, and over your attention span, and just your overall balance and wellbeing, but you’re not able to say, “I have the flu. I have this stuff going on at home.” You don’t know that there’s something different happening for you.
As a kid, I knew life seemed easier, or it looked like school seemed easier to other kids, but I didn’t know why. I thought something was wrong with me, not something was wrong with my setting at home, or something was wrong in my experiences because I had no reference point for what other people experienced. It just seemed like life looked easier, or people were less awkward or nervous. I think I showed up as a really stiff, maybe checked-out kind of a kid, who liked school but I didn’t like teachers, really, to interact with me. I’m sure that would have been hard for teachers. They would not have known they were reaching or connecting with me even though they really were.” – Cissy White
Christine “Cissy” White is a writer, adoptive mother, health advocate, group manager of the Parenting with ACEs group, and community-facilitator for the mid-Atlantic and Northeast region for the ACEs Connection Network. She founded Heal Write Nowin 2014, hoping to create the survivor-led community she craved her whole life. She was published in The Boston Globe, Spirituality and Health, Ms. Magazine, To Write Love on Her Arms, and The Elephant Journal. She led Parenting with PTSD and ACEs workshops for trauma survivors and treatment providers. She’s a co-founder of the #FacesOfPTSD campaign. Her survivor-led advocacy has been written about in The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and The Mighty. She believes any trauma-informed initiative must be informed by trauma survivors in order to be effective. This blog post is an edited version of her story and reflections shared first, last year, with the Attachment Trauma Network for their Educating Traumatized Students summit last year.