Stress is a normal biological reaction to an uncomfortable situation. Stress that we experience from work, traffic, deadlines, or lack of sleep is likely to be short term. We know that long term stress can cause physical and psychological disorders, but we often forget that children are also affected by stress. New research from Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child shows that persistent or repetitive stress, called Toxic Stress, while a child’s brain is developing early in life can hinder healthy development with consequences that last a lifetime.
Ninety percent of brain development happens before the age of five. A child’s brain first develops basic vision and hearing, then early language skills and cognitive functioning in the first few years of life. Early interactions and experiences shape a child’s brain. Imagine a child’s brain development like building a house. To build a strong house you need a strong foundation in place to support the walls and roof. A child’s early experiences lay the foundation of the brain upon which all other learning and growth is built.
Toxic stress in children comes from living with physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, severe maternal depression and prolonged economic hardship. Science has shown that toxic stress impairs connections in the brain. From our house analogy, toxic stress can cause cracks in the foundation and damage vital brain development that will largely determine a child’s physical, mental and emotional health in to adulthood. A child exposed to toxic stress is more likely to live with life-long problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
Researchers conclude, “The basic principles of neuroscience indicate that early preventive intervention will be more efficient and produce more favorable outcomes than remediation later in life”. Children’s Home works with families that need support to reduce children’s exposure to toxic stress. Programs that intervene early and provide at-risk children and families tools to mitigate stress—like those offered through our Child & Family Support services—not only offer better outcomes for a child, but increase prosperity to the community through their healthy development. Additionally, policies that increase access to quality early learning environments can help mitigate stress in the home and provide children with the positive interactions and learning experiences needed for healthy development.
The need to foster the healthy brain development of the next generation is now scientifically proven and is not a partisan issue. For the future of our community, state and country, we must do whatever we can to act early when families are at-risk to reduce child abuse, neglect, mental illness and poverty.