For National Children’s Day, our Writer at Large talks to acclaimed Scottish scientist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk about that state of modern childhood. Her assessment is stark

WHAT would you rather have as a Scottish citizen, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk asks: roads free of potholes, or no child going hungry?

Our society, she believes, has got its priorities so wrong we’re now actively “harming” our children. We talk more about the state of our roads, than child poverty. Politicians are “overseeing cruelty and neglect to children” with their policy choices.

It’s a powerful indictment of the state of childhood in modern Scotland, from the country’s highest-profile child psychologist. Her intervention couldn’t be more timely. Today is National Children’s Day, established to campaign for a happy, healthy and safe childhood and the protection of children’s rights. 

Zeedyk was a respected research scientist at Dundee University for nearly 20 years, specialising in child development, before leaving academia. In 2011, she began speaking tours across Scotland, campaigning for a society which puts children at its heart. She advises the public sector and private industry on putting ‘children first’, and writes extensively on child psychology.

The reasoning behind her long-running work is simple: if we fail children, we store up hell for ourselves. Damaged children become adults at risk of early death, prison, and addiction. Failing to make childhood as safe and happy as possible sets up a cycle where damaged parents hand on problems to their children.

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“I’m worried for our children,” Zeedyk says. At the root of her concern is what psychologists term ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ - or ‘ACEs’ - issues like physical, emotional or sexual abuse; neglect; parental mental illness; domestic violence; parents in prison; and addiction at home.

These experiences can ruin children’s lives, setting a path towards an adulthood of drink, drugs, bad relationships, ill-health, crime, prison, and early death. 

Here’s some startling facts from Zeedyk: two-thirds of Scottish children suffer at least one ACE by age eight. One-in-ten experience three or more ACEs.



Zeedyk says we need to realise there’s a biological aspect to ACEs. These experiences must be seen as “trauma”, she explains. Trauma doesn’t just leave psychological scars. ACEs devastate children in terms of the stress they experience, and have direct effects on the brain, including the amygdala, which regulates decision-making, fear, anxiety and aggression.

Children who experience ACEs are more likely as adults to take risks sexually, smoke, drink too much, and become overweight. It increases risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. There’s increased risk of ADHD, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Now, take all these stressors on children and throw Covid into the mix, as Zeedyk explains, and you can see why she’s worried. Should we be surprised at what tabloids now call ‘an epidemic of youth violence’ in schools and on the street?

On top of all this, Zeedyk notes, the adults tasked with protecting children - many parents, teachers, police officers, and social workers - “are overwhelmed themselves, they’re struggling, they often don’t feel valued.

“Struggling adults cannot meet children’s needs. Adults are tired, disconnected - not emotionally in-tune with themselves. Poverty has increased, worry has increased. Many people haven’t recovered from pandemic. Adults are stressed.”

And given that many of today’s adults experienced ACEs themselves when they were children - at a time when such trauma went unacknowledged - we face real problems as a society.

Many of us “need to fix ourselves”, Zeedyk says, before we’re capable of being of use to children. “Adults have a responsibility to figure out how to take care of their own emotions, so they don’t take them out on other people, especially children.”

Zeedyk dislikes how the conversation around school violence is framed. “The choice of that word ‘violence’ scares adults, when they should actually be curious about what’s going on for children. That word makes us turn on our children - think they’re the problem.

“I don’t mean that violence is okay - it’s not. I’m saying we need to get curious about what’s driving that behaviour.” 

Zeedyk’s mantra for adults is ‘fierce curiosity’ - that we should always be asking ‘why’ children behave as they do, because often we, the adults, are the cause of what’s gone wrong. 

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Curiosity, Zeedyk says, essentially means “empathy”. When it comes to children, “Scotland could do much better on the compassion in our culture”.

The biology of ACEs “underpins behaviour”, she says. “And emotionally-aware relationships change behaviour for the better.” In other words, if we listen to and understand the fears and anxieties of our children we’ll go a long way to creating a better society.

Zeedyk uses the example of a child who’s often late for school. Do we focus on punishing the child, or ask “what’s causing that child to be late? Maybe they’ve a parent drunk every morning, maybe they’re caring for their younger siblings. We need to think about the context of children’s lives and their struggles”.

Children experiencing poverty - with worried, depressed parents - or children who witness or suffer domestic violence are flooded with stress hormones like cortisol. “If your body has lots of cortisol in it, you’re more likely to hit someone,” Zeedyk says.

Traumatised children become traumatised adults. “All that costs us as a society in the long-run.” Zeedyk refers to Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be The Verse’ which begins: ‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do.’ 

Teachers are “being asked to do a job that isn’t really doable”, Zeedyk believes. There’s dire lack of ‘additional support needs’ staff and child psychologists within schools. “Teachers have too many children to deal with, and a higher number struggling with behavioural and developmental problems.

“Teachers don’t feel like government values them. How can they help children with their difficulties when they’re so overwhelmed?”

Zeedyk says we need to abandon “the language of misbehaviour. It’s very seductive for adults. Once we say a child is misbehaving, we’ve given ourselves permission to stop being curious because they’re ‘bad’. We think we need to control them, but controlling children doesn’t address what’s going on.” 

In other words, how will punishing a child who has experienced trauma and is acting out deal with the trauma that caused the problem in the first place? Zeedyk stresses this doesn’t mean children “don’t need boundaries”. Quite the reverse. Firm consistent boundaries, set with love and empathy, are the best way to improve behaviour.

Zeedyk is confident society will soon start to reorientate how childhood is viewed, and put the necessary emphasis on trauma and its effects on behaviour. “It wasn’t that long ago we thought you should hit children,” she says. 

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Evidently, we must consider the negative effects of corporal punishment - both at home and school - on the parents of today who experienced violence as children themselves. The prohibition on physical punishment in school, and the ‘smacking ban’ preventing parents hitting children, is a cause of “celebration”, says Zeedyk. “In that regard, things have got better.”

However, she adds: “But if we’re not emotionally in-tune as a society, that creates consequences for our children. In Scotland, we don’t have a system that meets the needs of many adults. That means they can’t be there for children.

“We have really high levels of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Scotland. We need to take seriously what these experiences of fear do to children’s biology and then how that cycles through the generations.”

In purely economic terms, this “cycle of intergenerational trauma” simply leads to public money being “wasted” in picking up the pieces when damaged children reach adulthood. Instead, we should invest wisely in making life better for children, a policy which would lead in the long-term to less pressure on the NHS, police, social work and prisons. There’s nothing cost-effective about how we treat modern childhood, Zeedyk believes.

Most important of all is that children must feel “connected - that people are interested in them emotionally. That makes them feel safe, and they thrive. But when you live in a society where people are too tired, poor and overwhelmed for adults to pay attention to children’s needs that sets up a feedback loop.

“Whenever parents living in poverty can pay attention to their children’s needs, it decreases the impact of poverty. Whenever parents living in violent communities can pay attention to their children’s needs, it decreases the impact of violence in the community.”

Zeedyk acknowledges how “hard” that is for overwhelmed parents, which is why she wants politicians to put children first when it comes to policy. She refers again to her theme of a lack of ‘curiosity’ - this time on behalf of government when it comes to how political decision-making affects the lives of children.

Zeedyk issues a challenge to Scotland’s adults: “I want to encourage us to ask ourselves if we like or just tolerate our children.” She notes that some experts on ACEs have said that Scotland “hasn’t faced up to the emotional cruelty that’s traditionally existed in society.

“It is because of Presbyterianism? Catholicism? High levels of poverty? High levels of drinking? Patriarchy? Does that make us cold? Impatient? Neglectful? These are good questions. What’s been important to us about children is: ‘how convenient are they?’ We don’t contextualise their lives, we just want them to obey. We’ve not been a very emotionally-curious culture.”

Adults need to stop believing they “own children. Children have a right to express their needs. You can’t believe that and think you own your children. Children have needs that might be different to yours, and therefore parents and children must have conversations, and find out about each other. It’s a different approach to the more hierarchal one we’ve traditionally operated with in Scotland.

“Again, that doesn’t mean no boundaries. Some people think if you talk about emotions, then chaos reigns. That’s a good defence against getting curious about what science tells us about the importance of relationships where you feel emotionally heard and therefore safe.”

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Political polarisation and culture wars are taking their toll on children. “When adults are angry, impatient and frustrated, children won’t feel safe. If you’re born into a society that’s agitated all the time, it feels dangerous. It heightens stress. Social media is making that worse.”

Society obsesses on children’s use of mobile phones, without considering how adult use impacts the young. Babies are aware of parents who are distracted by their phones. “It heightens a baby’s stress system. Whenever I hear about behaviour problems in schools, I think: these are the children whose parents had mobile phones whilst they were feeding them.”

Zeedyk says she doesn’t want to “shame” anyone, rather “we just need to face what the science says about the fundamental nature of relationships”. Shame, she feels, turns people away from considering her message.

“Adults live in denial as it protects us from having to think about the consequence of what we do - that we might be doing damage.” She turns her attention of the Scottish government. 

When it comes to child poverty, Zeedyk says: “If politicians say ‘we can’t afford this or that policy’, and live in denial of the consequences, or cannot think about the impact on children, then what they’re doing is overseeing cruelty and neglect. I want us to acknowledge that.”

She added: “Clearly, nobody is saying they’re being cruel or neglectful intentionally, rather it's the inadvertent result of their policy decisions.”

Zeedyk says she’d like politicians and policy-makers to say “we’re going to cut this budget and it’s a cruel decision because we know children will suffer but we don’t know what else to do. At least that would be honest.

“But politicians protect themselves by not finishing the sentence. What they say is, ‘we cannot make this budget stretch’. They don’t add ‘therefore children will suffer’. I want them to finish the sentence.

“Every time I drive over a pothole, I hope that means we took the budget for fixing potholes and put it into feeding children. There’s lots of bike paths going up everywhere. I’m a keen cyclist. But I’m not sure all those bike paths are the best use of money. Are children going hungry because I’ve a better bike path? I don’t want that, I want children fed.

“Here’s the politician I’d vote for - the one who says we’ve cut the roads budget by 75% and you’re all going to have potholes because we’re feeding children. And then when that politician gets a hard time, they have the confidence - with all the information about trauma and ACEs - of saying ‘as a culture we need to have a discussion about why potholes are more important to us than hungry children’.

“We need a mind-shift that acknowledges the impact that we have on children, and where we all take responsibility for that.”

Zeedyk says her criticism applies even more strongly to the Conservative government. “Child poverty is a political choice,” she says. She feels the “escalation of poverty over the past 14 years to be intentional neglect of children’s needs”. Removing the Sure Start programme, for example, wasn’t “just callous but dumb” as its “investment in early childhood” saved millions in public spending.

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The same thinking applies to adults in prison. They get little therapy, yet we expect them to emerge rehabilitated. Likewise, mental health budgets fall, despite the mental health crisis. Teacher support dwindles as behaviour declines. We don’t act like a “trauma-informed society”.

One simple step would be a child psychologist in every school - focused not on behaviour but “creating an emotionally-attuned culture … listening to children, helping them reflect on their lives and cope with stress”.

At the heart of Zeedyk’s thinking is the need for Scotland “to learn to talk about emotions. There are many, many children who live in households where emotional language is never used”. She despairs at the concept of ‘empathy’ and ‘kindness’ being mocked today.

“Denial makes many people feel better. When you mock or humiliate, it’s a great form of denial. Being empathetic requires some vulnerability, the ability to tune into another’s pain. It might require you to look at how you helped cause that pain and reevaluate the impact you’re having on others - like your children.”

She celebrates groups like Dads Rock which campaigns for greater “emotional literacy” among Scottish men. “True maturity is emotional maturity,” Zeedyk adds. “So when you get angry, you don’t punch someone; when you’re frustrated, you don’t start shouting; when you’re down, you don’t reach for alcohol. But we live in a society that hasn’t traditionally been emotionally mature.

“As a nation we’re defined by emotional dysregulation - by emotionally out-of-control adults, emotionally neglectful adults. It’s not that they set out to be bad. Our culture told us it was okay to be like this.”

Scotland, she adds, is also “doused in shame. If you don’t get attention from your parents, you end up carrying big doses of shame. Maybe Presbyterianism gave us that, maybe Catholicism.”

Neglect knows no class boundary. Middle-class families also suffer from substance abuse, mental health problems, and domestic violence. Zeedyk is particularly concerned about wealthy families sending children to boarding school early. That “f**ks up” children, she says.

The “big philosophical question” raised by how we treat children, says Zeedyk, is this: “What kind of society do we want? I don’t want us to live in denial of the cruelty we can do.”



Despite the starkness of her message, there’s a real appetite for Zeedyk’s approach to childhood in Scotland. She promoted the acclaimed documentary Resilience, about child trauma, around the nation from 2017 onwards. It repeatedly sold out. Around 30,000 people saw it in the first year alone. More than 150,000 people have attended her talks.

The consequences of Covid haven’t been reckoned with in any significant way, she feels. Pregnant woman were isolated and gave birth while anxious. Parents were isolated and fearful, with their anxiety affecting their children.

Children were locked-down at crucial stages in their lives. Children in nursery suffered intense feelings of loss when they were taken away from the first friends they’d ever made. Primary Seven children weren’t able to properly transition to high school. Many children and parents were left “carrying grief” as they were unable to attend funerals for loved ones.

Reports of long-term non-attendance at school are linked to children struggling with social anxiety and feeling disconnected from others post-pandemic. “Not all children carry lasting consequences,” Zeedyk says. “Some families baked cakes, and planted gardens, but other children were in flats where overwhelmed parents were hitting each other. They learned that the world is a scary place.”

Trends like declining school attendance and spikes in youth violence “are a response” to the world children find themselves in today.

The “unresolved trauma” of Covid will “filter down through the generations” unless society collectively comes together in acts of remembrance which help process mass grief healthily. Zeedyk notes how the cenotaphs erected after the First World War helped the nation grieve and recover.

She “resists” using words like ‘good parents’, but says if we want to be “emotionally responsive as parents” we must talk meaningfully to our children about their emotions - “how they feel instead of simply how they’re behaving”.

Zeedyk believes we should have proper state kindergartens in Scotland centred around play, with no child going into Primary One until age six when they become “ready for formal schooling. If we ask children to do things before they’re developmentally ready, we make them more emotionally immature”.

The notion of early years staff earning minimum wage should be anathema to any nation which cares about children, she believes.

“In a baby’s first year, before they can walk or talk, they learn whether adults are trustworthy and whether the world is scary. Roughly half the babies in our society learn that adults aren’t emotionally trustworthy - they don’t come and help. That leads to ways of coping with challenges that aren’t emotionally mature because they’re too threatened.”

If we recognise how children develop, “we can hold ourselves to account and make different and better decisions”. That goes for everyone - from parents to politicians, Zeedyk says. 

She gives one final example, citing parents angry about their child’s phone use. What would an emotionally mature parent do? “To safeguard your baby, find a way to be brave enough to put down your phone, and understand the impact you have on your own child.”