- Childhood trauma: Lifelong consequences of adverse childhood experiences
- Emotional abuse in children: An invisible problem that lasts into adulthood
- Physical abuse of children: The long term effects that never go away
- Child sexual abuse: Long term effects and how to protect your child
- Children of incarcerated parents pay the price of their crime forever
- Divorced parents: Long term effects of divorce on children
- Children who witness domestic violence: What happens when they grow up?
- Growing up with addicted parents and the adult children of addicts
- Growing up with a parent with mental illness: The lifelong impact
- Physical neglect: Lasting consequences of growing up hungry, cold, unhealthy, and unsafe
- Emotionally neglectful parents: How they harm their children in adulthood
- Adverse childhood experiences: 5 protective factors that build resilience in children
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing: Book Review
Have you ever had someone lash out in anger asking, “What’s wrong with you?!” Have you ever wondered why someone behaves the way they do? If so, then you might find What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry an invaluable resource.
It reframes childhood trauma by explaining how our adverse childhood experiences (ACE) manifest later in life. By reframing a question of judgment (such as “What’s wrong with you?”) to one of compassion (such as “What happened to you?”), this book shifts the perspective in a way that recognizes how the past shapes our current functioning.
About the book
The book takes the form of a conversation between Oprah and Perry, a neuroscientist and child psychiatrist. Beginning with a discussion on how we make sense of the world, it goes on to expose how childhood trauma affects the way we act and interact as adults. Once we understand why we behave as we do, we can take the steps required to prevent us from passing our trauma on. As importantly, when others understand what happened to us in the past, they can respond to us with compassion instead of judgment.
As a parent, why should I read this book?
While What Happened to You? targets an adult audience, it can be an important tool for us as parents as we consider how our own experiences have shaped us and how this might affect the way we parent and engage with our own children and other children in our care. Whether we are aware of it or not, the way we engage with our kids is informed by our own experience. In turn, our children’s minds are shaped by what is happening to them and around them.
It’s worth noting that when we think of trauma, we may think of one dramatic incident or ongoing obvious abuse. As this book reminds us, children can be traumatized by things such as inconsistent parenting, neglect, or an environment that is emotionally charged (or where emotions are suppressed) just as much as they can by overt abuse or sudden trauma.
A lifelong set of beliefs and behaviors can emerge when trauma is experienced at a young age.
We may believe that very young children will be okay because they won’t remember an event. However, as the book explains how our brains process information, we learn that a person may have no memory of certain events, and this can cause confusing and complex behaviors that seem to have no explanation.
Oprah describes how living in circumstances where she was expected to endure and even smile through emotional and physical abuse as a child led to her becoming a skilled people pleaser. She was unable to enforce her boundaries and say no. So, when she felt the stress indicators her body was sending, she ignored them and chose instead to soothe herself with the drug that was most easily accessible: food.
As the book progresses, Dr. Perry emphasizes that mental well-being is all about balance—having a well-regulated emotional response. Stress causes emotional dysregulation, which leads to discomfort and distress. Children are still unable to regulate their own behaviors and responses, and it is the job of the caregiving adults in their lives to assist them with this process. By responding attentively to our kids, we remind them that we are caring and reliable and that they are not alone. In the future, this trust that we build with our children allows them to engage meaningfully with teachers, classmates, and coaches.
Trauma, resilience, and healing
What happened to you? explains not only the psychology behind how trauma affects our behavior but also how the brain functions and how our experiences are processed by our brains. It details why we may respond in a way we don’t understand or can’t control, taking care to emphasize that we are not to blame for the manner in which we have adapted to deal with our childhood experiences.
Diagrams explain complex concepts in a way that is easy to understand, and Dr. Perry “speaks” to Oprah and the reader so that the science behind his knowledge is clear.
In a society where many parents are overwhelmed and under-resourced, they become dysregulated, which, in turn, affects their ability to be consistent in their parenting. This can result in children experiencing a prolonged stress response that goes on to negatively affect them in the future. The “survival” behaviors learned go on to become maladaptive behaviors in other environments, such as at school, where kids may be seen as disruptive or uncooperative.
We elicit from the world what we project into the world; but what you project is based upon what happened to you as a child.
Belonging and being loved are the core of the human experience. By using stories of real people, this book puts a human face to societal issues. It reminds us that in order to fix a problem, we can’t just address the current “symptoms;” instead, we need to understand where the problem originated. With knowledge of the past, we can address the underlying issues, and in doing so, we can find the support needed to build resilience against our adverse experiences.
Dr. Perry discusses the importance of implementing regulatory activities into the lives of those with trauma. Activities that are patterned, repetitive, and rhythmic—such as walking, rocking, tapping, dancing, and listening to music—have been shown to engage the whole brain and reduce the maladaptive functioning that trauma causes.
A chapter of the book is dedicated to discussing the move from coping to healing and talks about how activities such as self-harm, addictions, and distractions are used as coping mechanisms. It tells us that healing requires intentional change and that a person needs to first recognize and acknowledge what changes need to be made.
As What happened to you? draws to a conclusion, it raises the topic of connectedness. The authors note that in a technologically hyper-connected world, we are less personally engaged and not fully present in our interactions. A lack of resilience causes us to withdraw rather than work towards solving our differences.
The current trend of “cancel culture” can be attributed in some way to people being unwilling to discuss their differences, choosing instead to silence those who disagree with their worldview.
According to Dr. Perry, our disconnection goes further, and children today are “touch-starved.” He emphasizes that touch is a key communication tool for children and that it’s not normal for them to be denied the kind of interactions making them feel seen and safe. An understanding of “healthy touch” is vital in raising a generation of children that feel loved and connected. To encourage our kids to make real-world connections, we need to provide and consistently enforce guidelines around the use of technology.
Putting the lessons to use
Since the topic of trauma is so vast and this book is only a starting point to a conversation that addresses trauma-related topics, the authors provide a comprehensive list of additional resources that discuss trauma, the brain, and ACEs.
Reading What happened to you? gave me an opportunity to reflect on how many people live with buried or unacknowledged trauma and how this goes on to affect every aspect of their lives, whether they are aware of it or not. If you have watched Oprah at any time, you may already know about the abuse and trauma she suffered in her youth. However, reading about these experiences in her own words really reinforces how effectively she has managed to overcome them. At the same time, it is a reminder that suffering is a human experience, and no one is immune to its effects.
By understanding the things that overwhelm us and the underlying reasons for our own behavior, we can reflect, learn, and grow. Rather than letting adversity define us, we can use our traumas to become wiser and more empathic. We can take these lessons and put them into practice as we parent and interact with others. By remembering that each person behaves the way they do because of their past experiences, we can respond in a more forgiving and empathetic way.
Whether or not they have experienced trauma in the past, every parent and teacher should have this book on their reading list, if not to better understand themselves, then to raise their awareness of how trauma shapes the brain and understand better children and adults who have survived trauma in the past.
When you’re able to really see another person, that’s true compassion, and extending yourself in compassion to another human being changes the nature of our relationships, our communities, and our world. The acknowledgment of one human being by another is what bonds us. Asking ‘What happened to you?’ expands the human connection.
What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing
- Trauma affects our behavior long into adulthood.
- We are not to blame for the way we've dealt with childhood experiences.
- Consistently enforce guidelines around your kid's use of technology.
You need this if...
- You had an adverse childhood experience.
- Your child is unable to regulate their own behaviors and responses.
- You're seeking better ways to engage with your child.