• Opinion
  • October 24, 2018
  • 5 minutes
  • 1

Children who suffer trauma less likely to become public servants as adults

Opinion: Extra help for those with adverse childhood experiences could pay dividends

This piece was written by Crystal Evans, assistant professor of nonprofit management at Regis University, and Gregory R. Evans, an economics instructor at Bethel University. It can also be found in our early childhood newsfeed.


Have you ever seen a child in a bad situation and felt sorry for them? According to our new research, you should not just feel bad for the child; you should feel bad for the rest of society.

When children have traumatic experiences in their childhood (known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs), they carry scars from those experiences into adulthood and are less motivated to serve the public around them.

So, what are the negative experiences we should watch out for with children? Adverse childhood experiences were first defined Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Bob Anda at the Center for Disease Control. There are 10 total adverse childhood experiences, but they can be grouped into three categories: abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.

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For our test, we used an online survey with a normed study by Perry to measure public service motivation and questions about adverse childhood experiences.

Wounded children have consistently lower levels of motivation to help others

What we found surprised us. We expected to find support for the Wounded Healer phenomenon, where the wounded healer seeks to essentially self-treat their own wounds by helping others. Instead of supporting the Wounded Healer phenomenon, our research suggests that wounded children have consistently lower levels of motivation to help others.

Our findings sent us in search of an explanation and led us to developmental traumatology. Research on rats shed additional light on our finding. If young rats are put in a cage with more sexually mature, aggressive rats, later in life, those younger rats will neglect their own offspring. That is, being abused at an early age permanently damages a rat’s ability or will to care for others. Based on our findings, it may be the same for people.

All is not lost for the Wounded Healer phenomenon, however. Our research suggests that, while adverse childhood experiences are associated with lower levels of public service motivation, as an individual accumulates adverse childhood experiences, there is a positive effect on public service motivation. So, it could be that the Wounded Healer phenomenon holds, but it holds for people who experience with particularly bad childhoods (very high levels of ACEs).

Minimising adverse childhood experiences will help not just the child but society-at-large

So, what does this all mean? It further stresses the importance of how we treat children. Minimising adverse childhood experiences will help not just the child but society-at-large. In addition to a desire to help others, people with higher levels of public service motivation have been linked to an increased willingness to be a whistle-blower and to exhibit more innovative behaviour.

While we cannot change the adverse childhood experiences after the fact, evidence suggests that the right leadership can increase people’s public service motivation. Additional support for people who suffered adverse experiences in childhood could pay dividends to society with more innovative people willing to stand up when they see a wrong occurring.

For more information on this research, please see Adverse Childhood Experiences as a Determinant of Public Service Motivation in Public Personnel Management (a Sage Journal). — Crystal Evans & Gregory R. Evans

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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