Making Scotland an ACE informed nation: continuing the conversation – an event summary

dogbod2018, blog

by Dr Emma Davidson

We began a conversation on ACEs and resilience in December 2017 at the seminar, ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’, where Dr Eric Carlin and myself voiced our concerns that the dominant narrative on resilience could obscure inequalities; penalising individuals by making them responsible for their own wellbeing. Since then, we have witnessed the mounting influence of ACE and resilience-focused policy in Scotland. It is now even more important to provide a space in which popular rhetoric on ACEs and resilience can be constructively and respectfully critiqued.
Our event on 6th November 2018 aimed to reignite that process. We welcomed three speakers: Dr Amy Chandler, Dr Cara Blaisdell and Laura Wright, each of whom talked from their perspective of their own field of research.
Amy’s presentation (which you can watch here) examined the potentially counter-productive ways ACEs are used in research on suicide and self-harm. Early experiences, Amy noted, are undeniably important in shaping later risks of, or experiences with, suicide and self-harm. However, there is a tendency to rely on a mechanical or ‘addictive’ analysis, with a correlation drawn between early adversity and later problems. The work of explaining what these correlations actually mean, or understanding the mechanisms behind them, are less well developed. Drawing on her own research, Amy highlighted that this focus can mean that interpretation and meaning is omitted – what do adverse experiences mean and feel like to different people, at different times? And how are social and political conditions implicated in this? Also absent, Amy suggested, is the role of agency. The popular narrative of resilience plays into the long standing stigmatisation of mental health problems as being associated with weakness. This way of thinking about resilience implies that those experiencing self-harm and suicide are not resilient.  The reverse can in fact be true, with the practice of self-harm being evidence of extreme resilience in extreme circumstances.
Dr Cara Blaisdell’s work picked up on this critique within an early years setting (read Cara’s new blog here). She highlighted the potential for the ACE agenda in Scotland to reinforce what Tuck (2009) refers to as a ‘damage narrative’. Rather than holding those in power to account, these narratives can reinforce particular ideas about children and society: where the ‘poor’ child is a site of damage to self and society; where professional labels children and seek to ‘fix’ them; and where structures of oppression remain unchallenged and unchanged. Cara’s made the acute observation ‘what you focus on is what grows’. This is not a denial that bad things happen, but rather an acknowledgement that deficit based models can label, provoke normative ideas (of family, of parenting, of childhood). Ultimately deficit models stigmatise, and they leave little room for the complex meaning making emphasised by Amy as being so crucial.
Our final speaker was Laura Wright who raised what is an under-acknowledged issue within ACEs – and that is the role and status of children’s rights. Scotland is, noted Laura, a country recognised as a global leader in children’s meaningful participation. This work is supported by multiple organisations, initiatives (we are now coming to the end of the Year of Youth People) and legislation (i.e. Children and Young People (Scotland_ Act 2014). A tension, nonetheless, remains between participation and protectionism – with the latter superseding the former. The implications of this, argues Laura, requires exploration. At present, children and young people have not been given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in discussions about what is included or excluded from the list of ‘adverse childhood experiences’. Indeed, at an individual level, adults are completing checklists for children and young people, and using this to make decisions about possible interventions. What, asked Laura, does such an approach look like, and how it is given meaning by children and young people? Critically, how can a plan designed to be child-centred, like Getting it Right for Every Child, better engage children and young people in active conversations about their own well-being?
There is – as Laura concluded – no magic bullet. However, the speakers agreed that the way forward is not simply to shift from asking ‘what’s wrong with you’, to ‘what happened to you’. Rather, what is required is a move towards a strengths approach which asks what is right with you, your family, your community and your society. On a practical and pragmatic note, more reflection and time needs to be spent on how complex ideas – such as meaning, context and interpretation – be meaningfully incorporated in institutional structures and practices already under incredible pressure.
We intend to continue these conversations and look forward to seeing you at our forthcoming events. There are four more seminars planned for 2019. Each will consider ACEs and resilience through a different conceptual lens. These are: 
·        ACEs and foetal & infant development
·        ACEs, resilience and gender
·        Resilience in the Majority World
·        ACEs and resilience in Scottish schools
We will be announcing dates for these seminars in the New Year. Please subscribe to the CRFR website for updates on this, and CRFR’s other events and research activities.

About the Author

CRFR co-director Dr Emma Davidson summarises the key themes emerging from our recent seminar reflecting on the emergent ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and resilience agenda in Scotland.

Further Links

Drs Emma Davidson and Eric Carlin reflect on their CRFR Informal Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’.
Resilience – continuing the conversation

RFR Associate PhD student Ariane Critchley provides her thoughts on resilience in response to the recent CRFR Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’ given by Eric Carlin and Emma Davidson.
How resilient do we want our children and young people to be?

Dr Caralyn Blaisdell from the University of Strathclyde continues our discussion on the theme of resilience and how this term is being used, with specific reference to early years.  
Resilience in early years – continuing the conversation
ACE Awareness,damage narratives and social justice in early years practice: personal andprofessional reflections

Laura Wright, University of Edinburgh talks about engaging children in the ACE agenda.
ACE Aware Nation: Engaging Children in the Conversation