Human Brain Neurons

Neurons are information messengers. They use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Toxic stress takes a toll on a child's growth and derails development.

Stress and Trauma

Fostering strong nurturing relationships can shield children from the impact of negative experiences and can create a protective barrier. Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children aged 0-6 due to infant and young children's reactions may be different from older children's.

 

In addition, they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. A growing body of research has established that young children may be affected by events that threaten their safety or the safety of their parents/caregivers, and their symptoms have been well documented.

Children are deeply impacted by the events that take place around them. Even though they may not understand what they see and hear, they absorb and are affected by the people they rely on for love and security. Constant, unrelenting negative experiences – known as “toxic stress” – take a toll on a child’s growth and development. Parents and caregivers play a very important role in helping infants and toddlers heal from traumatic experiences.

Toxic stress is what happens when children are in a state of chronic state of defense for dealing with threat because of their continual exposure to stressful experiences. 1 All humans possess a continuum of innate, hard-wired, automatically activated defense behaviors. Infants and toddlers are extremely sensitive for these defenses to activate. 

It is normal for children to encounter some level of stress, and learning coping skills to manage stress is important for children. However, when stressful experiences are prolonged, especially in young children, this stress can lead the body to over produce hormones associated with stress causing them to reach a toxic level. 2

Toxic Stress Derails Brain Development 3

The Harvard Center on the Developing Child, have produced several videos highlighting the importance of healthy brain development which should be shared to impact public policies and decisions.

Early Childhood Trauma Symptoms and Behavior

Similar to older children, young children experience both behavioral and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. Unlike older children, young children cannot express in words whether they feel afraid, overwhelmed, or helpless. Young children suffering from traumatic stress symptoms generally have difficulty controlling their behaviors and emotions. They may be clingy and afraid of new situations, easily frightened, difficult to console, and/or aggressive and impulsive. They may also have difficulty sleeping, lose recently acquired developmental skills, and show regression in functioning and behavior.

Retrieved From: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Children Ages 0-2 Exposed to Trauma May

Children Ages 3-6 Exposed to Trauma May

  • Demonstrate poor verbal skills

  • Exhibit memory problems

  • Scream or cry excessively

  • Have poor appetite, low weight, or digestive problems

  • Have difficulties focusing or learning in school

  • Develop learning disabilities

  • Show poor skill development

  • Act out in social situations

  • Imitate the abusive/traumatic event

  • Be verbally abusive

  • Be unable to trust others or make friends

  • Believe they are to blame for the traumatic event

  • Lack self-confidence

  • Experience stomach aches or headaches

Questions and Answers

When does stress become toxic?

Stress becomes toxic when it is prolonged and untreated, causing damage to rapidly developing brain architecture. 2 There are different stresses, however traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, food insecurity or family dysfunction, may also produce a prolonged stress response resulting in toxic stress. These stresses and risk factors are especially common in low-income communities and families living in poverty.

What are the consequences of toxic stress?

In response to stress, the brain produces the hormone cortisol. During prolonged exposure to stress, cortisol levels remain too high for too long, which inhibits brain development. Over time, this can change the architecture of a child’s, rapidly developing brain. Altered brain architecture can result in long-term problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. 2 These consequences include things like increased risk for substance misuse, liver disease, poor academic achievement, and reduced executive function or ability to self-regulate behavior. 3

How can toxic stress be identified?

There are a number of ways to identify toxic stress, but one critical tool is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) test.  Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are characterized as traumatic events that occur during childhood. These include events such as abuse, neglect, family separation, or living with a parent with mental illness or substance use disorder. Any of these experiences can have a profound effect on children and can lead to the development of toxic stress. 4 A child’s ACE Score is determined by how many ACEs he or she has experienced, and can be a predictor of physical, social and emotional problems later in life.

While many people may think of exposure to ACEs as isolated and only affecting a small number of children, at least half of children in the United States have experienced one or more ACEs in their life. 5 Moreover, 62% of children living in poverty experience ACEs, which is a significantly higher rate than their affluent peers. And children living in poverty are more likely to experience multiple ACEs. 6 Research finds that the more ACEs a child experiences the more likely they are to have negative outcomes later in life. 7

What is trauma, and how does it connect to ACEs and toxic stress?

While trauma has many definitions, typically in psychology it refers to an experience of serious adversity or terror—or the emotional or psychological response to that experience. Trauma-informed care or services are characterized by an understanding that problematic behaviors may need to be treated as a result of the ACEs or other traumatic experiences someone has had, as opposed to addressing them as simply willful and/or punishable actions.

How can we combat the negative effects of ACE's and toxic stress?

Research shows that the best ways to buffer the effects of ACEs and toxic stress are to stop or reduce a child’s exposure to the stressful condition, begin providing stable conditions for the child, and ensure that the child has a responsive relationship with as many caring adults as early as possible. In addition to these interventions, children may benefit from professional therapeutic help after a traumatic event.

Ensuring that any interventions and support given to children exposed to trauma is high-quality and evidence-based is critical to helping children cope with and buffer the effects of toxic stress.

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References: 

1. The Hechinger Report: Child Victims of Toxic Stress Face a Long Road to Healing https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-child-victims-of-toxic-stress-face-a-long-road-to-healing/?mc_cid=a1035ae9ec&mc_eid=fcaa27ec36

2. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: Toxic Stress https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/

3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html

4. Child Trends: The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, nationally, by state, and by race or ethnicity https://www.childtrends.org/publications/prevalence-adverse-childhood-experiences-nationally-state-race-ethnicity

5. Child Trends: Helping Young Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: Policies and Strategies for Early Care and Education – Executive Summary https://www.childtrends.org/publications/ecetraumaexecsum

6. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Traumatic Experiences Widespread Among US Youth, New Data Shows https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/articles-and-news/2017/10/traumatic-experiences-widespread-among-u-s–youth–new-data-show.html

7. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html

8. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: ACEs and Toxic Stress: Frequently Asked Questions  https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/aces-and-toxic-stress-frequently-asked-questions/