A baby is born into a family where he’s ignored by his father. When he does receive his father’s attention, his father constantly yells at, criticizes or punishes him. For the first two years of his life, this child’s mother is perfunctorily attentive, but not loving, and then abandons him for a year. From the time he was born until he is an adult, he witnesses his father abuse his older brother by terrorizing him verbally. This leads to his older brother becoming an alcoholic and dying at the age of 42. He sees his parents engaged in an emotionally neglectful, if not emotionally abusive, marriage.
This is the story of the early years of President Donald J. Trump, according to the captivating book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” The book was written by the president’s niece, Mary L. Trump, the daughter of Donald Trump’s older brother. It bursts open the doors to understanding why Donald Trump behaves the way he does. It is also is a cautionary tale for how we decide who becomes a leader, whether that leader is a president, CEO, judge or school superintendent.
In Mary Trump’s words: “Child abuse is, in some sense, the experience of ‘too much’ or ‘not enough.’ Donald directly experienced the ‘not enough’ in the loss of connection to his mother at a crucial developmental stage, which was deeply traumatic. Without warning, his needs weren’t being met, and his fears and longings went unsoothed. Having been abandoned by his mother for at least a year, and having his father fail not only to meet his needs but to make him feel safe or loved, valued or mirrored, Donald suffered deprivations that would scar him for life.”
Anyone who knows about the science of adverse childhood experiences has suspected all along thatcritical aspects of the president’s formative years contributed to his behavior today.
Mary describes Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, as a “high-functioning sociopath.”
“In order to cope,” writes Mary, “Donald began to develop powerful but primitive defenses, marked by an increasing hostility to others and a seeming indifference to his mother’s absence and father’s neglect….In place of [his emotional needs] grew a kind of grievance and behaviors—including bullying, disrespect, and aggressiveness—that served their purpose in the moment but became more problematic over time. With appropriate care and attention, they might have been overcome.”
But Donald Trump had practically no positive childhood experiences that could buffer the abuse he endured. “Unfortunately, for Donald and everybody else on this planet,” writes Mary Trump, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, “those behaviors hardened into personality traits…”
Donald Trump didn’t have a chance. The only thing that kept him from ending up as a small-time crook with a prison record is money, and lots of it.
Most people think of child abuse as sexual abuse or the physical abuse of being beaten. But the science of adverse childhood experiences found that other types of childhood abuse—experiencing emotional abuse, emotional neglect, living with a parent who’s addicted to alcohol or other drugs or is mentally ill, having a relative who’s incarcerated or witnessing a mother being abused, witnessing a sibling being abused, bullying, racism and other traumatic experiences—can do just as much damage. That’s because the brain itself can’t distinguish between types of trauma. It’s all just trauma that a child’s brain has to adapt to in order to survive. For example, when a father’s only interactions with a child are to suddenly rage without warning, the stress hormones in the child’s brain trigger a kid to flee for his life, fight or freeze in fear. And if that kid has to protect himself from that father every day, eventually that kid’s brain is altered.
Science is very clear that babies need two important types of positive experiences to lay a solid foundation for a healthy life, notes Mary Trump. One is physical and emotional closeness: “Being held and comforted, having our feelings acknowledged and our upsets soothed are all critical for the healthy development of young children.”
The second is mirroring, “the process through which an attuned parent reflects, processes, and then gives back to the baby the baby’s own feelings,” she writes. “Without mirroring, children are denied crucial information both about how their minds work and about how to understand the world. Just as a secure attachment to a primary caregiver can lead to higher levels of emotional intelligence, mirroring is the root of empathy.”
Although the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study still isn’t widely known, even though it’s been around for 20 years, it and the other parts of ACEs science are providing a profound shift in our understanding about why we humans behave the way we do. ACEs science also shows that to change behavior that is unhealthy, criminal or unwanted requires a very counterintuitive approach. Instead of using practices based on blaming, shaming and punishing, as we have for centuries, incorporating policies and practices on understanding, nurturing and healing have seen remarkable results in every sector in tens of thousands of organizations (but there are millions of organizations). Schools that integrate practices based on ACEs science, sometimes called trauma-informed schools, are able to eliminate suspensions and expulsions. Hospital emergency rooms see a 30% drop in visits. Suicide attempts by youth drop 98%. Recidivism rates by graduates of batterer intervention courses drop from 60% to 1%. A year after families participate in Safe Babies Courts, 99% of children suffer no further abuse.
The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score—the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced—the higher their risk of adverse social, economic, health and civic consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4 or higher. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. It increases obesity, violence, and mental illness. Forty-three U.S. states, many countries and countless organizations have done their own ACE surveys, and the results are remarkably similar. (To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
Subsequent research links ACEs to Alzheimer’s, dementia, maternal ACEs and infant development, obesity in youth, gynecology patients with chronic pelvic pain….you name the disease or condition, and it’s likely to be exacerbated by ACEs.
By applying this rough, but insightful, way to assess the risk of childhood adversity, and based on the information in Mary Trump’s book, Donald Trump’s ACE score is a 6.
- Trump’s father emotionally neglected his son when he was a baby and a toddler.
- When Donald Trump was older, his father was emotionally abusive.
- Trump’s mother emotionally neglected her son when he was a toddler, at a formative time for his brain development. In other words, he didn’t receive the positive experiences necessary for healthy development.
- Trump watched his older brother be abused by his father for years.
- Trump’s mother had mental health problems that seem to have gone undiagnosed and untreated for several years.
- Trump’s parents were in a relationship that was emotionally neglectful.
Mary Trump chronicles the lives of three generations of Trumps in her book, and shows how trauma is passed from generation to generation. The Trump family considered their lives to be normal. They probably never gave a thought to how their behavior was shaped by what they experienced as children. When people—a few hundred thousand by now—with similar backgrounds have learned about ACEs science, a constant refrain is: “I didn’t know that what I experienced was abuse. I thought it was normal. This explains my life. Why did it take so long for me to hear about this?”
The participants in the ACE Study were 17,000 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated people with jobs and great health care. Looking at Donald Trump’s ACEs is a potent reminder that ACEs apply to people of all economic classes, something to which the ACEs movement and research hasn’t paid much attention lately because people of color and low economics bear the burden of ACEs.
We know that the phrase “hurt people hurt people” emerged from the understanding that most people who’ve committed violent crimes have high ACE scores.
However, hurt people hurt people on many levels, including enacting policies and laws that are just as harmful as interpersonal violence, and often more harmful because they affect hundreds or thousands or millions of people.
People with high ACE scores go in one of two general directions: They see the world as a place of suffering that needs healing, encourage people to work together to solve problems, and believe that the world works better without conflict than with it. Generally speaking, their positive childhood experiences have mitigated the adversity they experienced.
Or they see the world as a dark and dangerous place where carnage is rampant, problems are everywhere and are best solved by identifying and defeating enemies, building walls, and cutting off communication from people identified as “other.” And if enemies do not present themselves, they who see the world as a dangerous place will create enemies and make them larger than they really are, so that their “defeat” empowers them to find more enemies to conquer. Generally speaking, people in this group haven’t had enough protective factors in their lives, and thus favor punitive approaches to changing behavior, such as harsh prison sentences or zero-tolerance schools, even with ample evidence that they don’t work.
People who have high ACE scores and experienced few protective factors in their childhood can heal and change—ACEs aren’t destiny—but it often requires years of effort and constant reinforcement to at least ameliorate what’s been hard-wired into a baby’s brain. Mary Trump believes that her uncle Donald is very likely never to heal. She writes:
“Donald continues to exist in the dark space between the fear of indifference and the fear of failure that led to his brother’s [Fred’s] destruction. It took forty-two years for the destruction to be completed, but the foundations were laid early and played out before Donald’s eyes as he was experiencing his own trauma. The combination of those two things—what he witnessed and what he experienced—both isolated him and terrified him. The role that fear played in his childhood and the role it plays now can’t be overstated. And the fact that fear continues to be an overriding emotion for him speaks to the hell that must have existed inside the House [the Trump family home] six decades ago.
“Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous (the implication being that he made them so), you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and that he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy.”
I don’t hate Donald Trump. I’m very sad for the things he experienced—no child should go through what happened to him. However, I hate many of the things he’s done. Authorizing ripping children out of the arms of their parents and separating them for months, years or forever, for example, sets me to writhing in helpless fury, and I wonder: Did the experience of having his mother ripped from his life so suddenly and for so long cause him such pain that it snuffed out the light of his empathy? Mary Trump thinks so.
For those of you who don’t like him, I’m not saying you have to feel sorry for him. I’m saying: You must understand him. You must understand him so that we don’t create more Donald Trumps in this world.