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High Levels of Emotional Stress Can Be Toxic to Children, But Nurturing Can Help

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

Research has found that adverse childhood experiences like poverty, a parent’s job loss, or parental substance abuse, cause severe stress in young children, impacting the physical development of their brains, which consequently may have broader impacts on our local communities and our economy.

Pediatricians and researchers are using major advances in brain imaging to track this ‘toxic stress.’ They have found that as this stress builds around a child, it floods the brain with chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine.

These chemicals hinder the formation of neural connections that help children improve focus, control emotions, and develop language skills. These are skills necessary for children to be successful in school and in adult life.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris sees this process unfold nearly every day, as many children come to her clinic in San Francisco afflicted not only with ear-aches and tummy pain, but by violence in the home, extreme poverty and sometimes as victims of physical or emotional abuse. Many of these children—who often lack access to quality early education and good health care—go on to become adults with chronic physical and mental illness, and can repeat the cycle of violence and poverty themselves.

Thankfully, the science of brain development also gives us hope. We are learning that there are concrete steps that families can take to stop the effects of toxic stress on the brain.

Families can start by recognizing and moderating childhood stress in the early years, largely by helping children avoid violent or dangerous situations. But even simple acts like creating bedtime routines, cuddling and scheduling predicable time with parents helps kids feel more secure, so that their minds have a chance to develop fully.

Of course, we also need larger changes– like guidelines to help doctors and educators recognize the warning signs of childhood stress, and policy changes that will alleviate poverty– but small actions in the home are proving to be a critical piece of the puzzle.

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