To Overcome Childhood Trauma, Dustin Plantholt Says You Must Engage Your Past

Life's tough, but Dustin Plantholt is tougher.

Dustin Plantholt had a rough childhood. 

Now an adult, Planholt describes early years that were defined by the drugs, violence and gangs surrounding them. By the time he was five, Dustin and his sister were taken from their father and put into the foster care system. 

It was the late 1980s when Plantholt entered the foster care system, and he says that it was a system ill-equipped to handle childhood trauma.  

"There was this idea that somehow children are resilient," Plantholt told A Plus.  "That no matter what happens to them, they will get over it. It won't break them. What we've learned now after decades of research is that childhood trauma is, in its own way, post-traumatic stress disorder."

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Dustin Plantholt

To help others handle their childhood trauma, Plantholt has launched a new website called Life's Tough alongside a November release of his book Life's Tough You Can Be Tougher. His goal for the website is to encourage people to upload videos of themselves sharing their own stories of trauma, and eventually building out a community of people who can support and care for each other through their owned lived experiences. Down the road, Plantholt plans to consult experts and help develop educational content for kids that will help them deal with their own traumatic experience.

"I believe that every child not only deserves a loving home, but also that childhood trauma should not be overlooked and more education needs to be brought front and center," he said. "Education is power."

In 2014, Plantholt's sister committed suicide, which motivated him to start doing work in the childhood trauma space. He believes that her death was closely tied to the experiences they had as children, including a sexual assault his sister experienced when they were young. 

Along with founding Life's Tough, Plantholt now sits on the board of the March of Dimes, an organization fighting premature births. He is also a board member and keynote speaker for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). Through LIRS, Plantholt says he gets to connect with children who are displaced from their own homes, fleeing war-torn countries or running from broken homes. Those experiences all create the kinds of childhood trauma he is hoping to help society think about in more productive ways.

In 2005, Plantholt's father was released from prison. When he got out, Plantholt felt an overwhelming sense of anger towards him. He recalled that when the idea of reuniting with his dad came about, he mostly felt the urge to hurt his father physically because of all the pain and embarrassment he had endured after his childhood. But when he saw his father for the first time, all he saw was a "fractured man."

"He's got a beard, he's hunched over, and there was a shame — this look — on his face," Plantholt recalled. "'I sure missed you,' he said. And I cried."

Plantholt with his children. Dustin Plantholt

Since then, Plantholt and his father have been re-building their relationship. He described it as one where he is now the dad and his father is his son, often giving his dad advice or trying to keep him out of trouble. They've made one ironclad promise, though, which is that they will always tell each other the truth about their feelings on the past and what's happening in the present.

"When I hugged my dad, there was this forgiveness," Plantholt said. 

Since then, he's turned that forgiveness into an effort to keep his dad involved in his life. In 2016, he introduced his father to his son Leo. He described the moment as one of the best in his entire life. 

"If I can survive that and I can teach my son that you can forgive those that hurt you, I can forgive my own father for leaving me for over 16 years, then and Leo can forgive me," Plantholt said. "If you hold onto the past, it will crush you... And I've learned that in order to overcome the obstacles that are put before you, you first need to speak your truth and embrace your past."

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