The Underrated Healing Power of a Healthy Relationship

Two new books teach us how caring friends and family can correct the trajectories of troubled youth.

For centuries, religion and science have regularly found themselves at odds in defining the essential truths of our world—a debate that, of course, continues today. So, we should take note when distinguished leaders in those two, often-conflicting domains find themselves arriving at the same conclusion about a fundamental question: how do we out more struggling young people on a path toward success?

The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity
by Nadine Burke Harris

This alliance is on full display in two recent books that explore the epidemic of childhood adversity as well as its solution. In The Deepest Well: Healing from the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a highly-respected pediatrician, explores the long-term impact of adversity and toxic stress on a child’s health and academic performance from a medical and public health perspective. Meanwhile, in Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle marshals a personal and spiritual outlook to examine the lives of young people growing up in communities riven by poverty and violence.

From these divergent paths and perspectives, both authors arrive at the same destination: that positive, caring relationships play a crucial role in tempering and healing toxic stress and correcting the fractured trajectories of troubled youth.

Of course, relationships—unhealthy relationships—are also a major source of the problem. In one of the most memorable passages of The Deepest Well, Burke Harris recounts sitting down with 10-year-old Kayla and her mom to identify the cause of a severe asthma flair-up. After running through all the typical triggers without success, Kayla’s mom said, “Well, her asthma does seem to get worse whenever her dad punches a hole in the wall. Do you think that could be related?”

That question—whether unhealthy human relationships can lead to physical ailments—drives Burke Harris’s career and animates her book. As she explains, traditional medical approaches and standard therapies came up short in explaining or alleviating her young patients’ suffering. “Trying to treat these children felt like jamming unmatched puzzle pieces together,” she writes. “The symptoms, causes and treatments were close, but not enough to give that satisfying click…I asked myself again and again: What’s the connection?”

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
by Gregory Boyle

In The Deepest Well, Burke Harris invites us to join her process of discovery as she follows the trail that ultimately leads to her discovering the impact of toxic stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As she details, a growing body of evidence shows that ACEs interfere with a young person’s ability to concentrate, connect with others, and regulate their behavior, which are all key skills for performing at school and in life. ACEs can permanently alter brains and bodies, hormonal systems, and even DNA transcription. The presence of just one childhood trauma—abuse, neglect, or violence—can lead to a range of negative health outcomes later in life, including learning disabilities and substance abuse. The risks compound for children who have more adverse experiences.

Burke Harris guides the reader through reams of scientific material while never losing sight of the stakes—the way that ACEs imperil the prospect of millions of of young people to lead healthy and successful lives. Some of Burke Harris’s most fruitful discoveries in the quest to understand her patients’ conditions surface from conversations with others: a discussion with the mother of a young boy with ADHD, a chance meeting with a woman who suffered adverse childhood experiences and wonders how they might be affecting her long-term health.

While dysfunctional relationships are very often the source of ACEs, Burke Harris also shows how healthy relationships are a key part of healing and thriving. In her research and practice, she discovered that caring, supportive relationships with adults can mitigate and even prevent the lasting effects of toxic stress. A network of caring adults, parents, school personnel, and community members provides the buffer that combats the psychological and physiological damage from ACEs, and promotes healthy child development. Traditional forms of therapy and health care alone are not enough. Rather, medical systems need to develop a more holistic approach to caring for children that considers the impact of these experiences and the ways that developing bodies handle trauma.

As Burke Harris dives deeply into the biological processes of young people, Father Boyle’s Barking to the Choir takes a spiritual approach to well-being. Reflective, insightful, and keenly attuned to the inner experiences of his subjects, Father Boyle shares his experience in leading Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program. The young people whose stories he recounts have had their lives derailed by trauma that will sound familiar to Burke Harris’s readers: chronic violence, incarceration of family members, and substance abuse.

Yet each moment in Barking to the Choir reverberates with an awareness of how caring relationships can heal those wounds. Boyle calls for a community—or a “choir,” as he puts it—that looks out for those in dire need that others have given up on. From Jesuit priests to former convicts to the cops who policed them, he sees a role for every person in this community.

For Boyle, relationships offer spiritual salvation; for Burke Harris, a medical salve. In her book and her practice, Burke Harris teaches adults how they can screen for ACEs, prevent or mitigate the effects, and set children up for lifetimes of health and success. In his book and active practice of his faith, Father Boyle counsels about the human and spiritual benefits of relationships that make it possible for even the most challenged young people to stay out of trouble, to acquire the skills they need to hold a stable job, and perhaps most importantly, “to learn to be loyal to [their] own lives.”

These two authors are hardly the first to recognize the centrality of caring adults and positive relationships in the lives of young people. Psychologists, educators, and youth development experts have long preached the importance of relationships in a young person’s healthy development. Yet by bringing in the dimensions of spirituality and science, they have made valuable additions to the canon, offering the reader a powerful and nuanced understanding of how relationships operate to heal the wounds of troubled childhoods and households, rebuild a sense of self and hope in the present, and fashion a path toward future success in all endeavors.

And by focusing on the healing power that positive relationships can have in the lives of our most troubled young people, they give us a powerful prescription about what we need to do for the millions of young people who are growing up in challenging circumstances and communities. As Father Boyle said so simply, “If you are the proud owner of a pulse, you can be a caring adult.”

John Gomperts

John Gomperts is the president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth.