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Settling the Bodies of Traumatized Youth

Published September 11th, 2020


Dear Wild Earth families,

Reading Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, has provided an important framing I’d like to share about our collective experience so far in 2020, especially as we observe how this experience affects our children.

I’m sure we share deep concerns about the accumulating trauma and “adverse childhood experiences” confronting our youth. For six months now, COVID-19 has been a severe and persistent traumatic experience for the youth we serve. Many children have had precious little healthy interaction with peers, adult mentors, and teachers since mid-March. Parents, caregivers, and members of our wider community are all being called on to provide increased support to our youth, despite being overstressed themselves and possibly feeling unprepared to meet a variety of challenges. These are legitimate concerns that we must name and understand, but also work together to address.

Exposure to trauma is particularly toxic for children and there seems to be a biochemical component behind all of this.

When people experience repeated trauma, abuse, or high levels of stress for long stretches of time, a variety of stress hormones get secreted into their bloodstreams. In the short-term, the purpose of these chemicals is to protect their bodies. But when the levels of these chemicals (cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine) remain high over time, they can have toxic effects, making a person less healthy, less resilient, and more prone to illness. High levels of these chemicals can also crowd out other, healthier chemicals – those that encourage trust, intimacy, motivation and meaning. All of this suggests that trauma is a major contributor to many of our bodily, mental, and social ills, and that mending our trauma may be one of the best ways to address those ills (My Grandmother’s Hand’s, Menakem).  

As COVID’s negative consequences further highlight and intensify issues of inequality, we have seen some instances of how youth from our underserved communities of Kingston and Ellenville may be more severely impacted. We now have a collective experience of viewing black people murdered indiscriminately in the street and greater insight into unaddressed systemic racism in our country, which is weighing heavy on our youth. Added to historical, intergenerational, and personal traumas that most all individuals carry (especially people of color), the burden is becoming immense.  “As these traumas compound each other, and recent traumatic experiences trigger the energy of older experiences, they can create ever-increasing damage to human lives and human bodies (Menakem, Resmaa).”

The research is now in: the effects on the body from trauma that is persistent (or pervasive, repetitive, or long-held) are significantly negative, sometimes profoundly so.  While many studies support this conclusion, the largest and best known is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) of 17,000 people conducted over three decades by the CDC and the healthcare conglomerate, Kaiser Permanente. Published in 2014, ACES clearly links childhood trauma (and other “adverse childhood events” involving abuse or neglect) to a wide range of long-term health and social consequences, including illness, disability, social problems and early death – all of which can get passed down through the generations. The cumulative effect of these consequences is explored in Menakem’s book. He writes that the number of “adverse events” experienced by a person multiplies and compounds the negative effects. Children who have had four or more “adverse events,” are thirty-three times as likely to have learning and behavior problems in school. (My Grandmother’s Hand’s, Menakem). 

Wild Earth and other allied community organizations serving youth are being called to honor the relationships we’ve built with parents, caregivers, teachers and school administrators and use the resources we can offer to support the bodies, hearts, and minds of the youth in our communities.

We have strong experiential evidence that the wilderness programs we lead support children’s health and well-being. So, Wild Earth will continue to lead our all-outdoor, nature connection experiences for as many youth as possible at this time, with specific focus on maximizing our ability to meet children most impacted by recent trauma and “adverse childhood experiences.” Wild Earth will be investing in professional development that will support our staff in recognizing and understanding trauma so that we can more intentionally contribute towards their healing.

On beautiful, open, and expansive land, Wild Earth’s heart-centered instructors will continue to lead songs, stories, games, crafts, wild wanders and explorations, and unstructured time in the woods. However, we know that all the youth needing support are not able to get out in the woods with us. In order to meet them, we will have to expand our work into city parks, open lots, and other accessible locations. Wherever we can, we want to engage youth in some (off-screen) fun, confirm their innate goodness, and support them in feeling safe, seen, and celebrated.  

Just as we have collectively experienced the trauma of the last six months, we must collectively address the consequences of this moment. Wild Earth has been built on ever expanding values of community and now we must continue to invest in the community efforts that best support our children growing into the strong, compassionate, and resilient leaders that they are already showing that they will be. 




David BrownsteinDavid BrownsteinDavid Brownstein, Executive Director

In 2004, David co-founded and, today, is the Executive Director of Wild Earth, where he seeks to help regenerate healthy community culture and create opportunities for people to connect with themselves, each other and the Earth. Prior to founding Wild Earth, David worked as a wealth advisor on Wall Street for twelve years before realizing a life dream – fully sharing in the care and parenting of his three children, and creating a small family farm. Today, the Brownsteins raise dairy cows, goats, chickens, bees and vegetables in season. David also maintains an active counseling practice called Root Connections, where he focuses on helping individuals, couples, groups and business leaders identify and manifest their unique vision. More about David's work.

5 thoughts on “Settling the Bodies of Traumatized Youth”

  1. Nancy Eos says:

    Thank you, David, for such a great letter. Well said.

  2. Thank you for your wise words and shining heart and all of the good work that Wild Earth offers.

    I have recently added a third program at Mountaintopschool and named it the Red Fox Forest Kindergarten, in honor of your beginnings! Thank you! Xxoo

  3. David Brownstein says:

    Thanks Nancy, Leslie and Wendy for taking the time to read my letter and commenting. Wendy, I am honored that you chose to revive the “Red Fox” for Mountaintop. I couldn’t think of a better place to welcome her back. Hope you have a great (though likely different) school year with the little ones.

  4. Stephanie Ellis says:

    Thank you for bringing these opportunities to our youth.

Comments are closed.

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