Stress Has Lasting Effect on Child's Development

In its toxic form, stress affects behavior and physical health, and we need to translate this knowledge into public policies that can prevent it.

The importance of children's earliest years has long been recognized, but our understanding of the underlying science has taken a significant leap in the past decades. Studies regularly document the effects that a child's earliest experiences can have on later life and adult health.

There is a growing consensus among experts that a key mechanism linking childhood adversity to later health and well-being is the stress caused by early negative experiences. These early negative experiences manifest in neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and excessively harsh parenting.

The growing epidemic of domestic violence is another key factor in the early childhood stress equation. Many people believe children are not affected by domestic violence and stressful environments until they are verbal, and over the age of 3 or 4. Nothing could be further from the truth. Research tells us stress in utero and in the first months and years of life has lasting consequences on a developing child.

The Dangerous Part of Stress is the Physical Response

In this context, "stress" doesn't refer to a worried or anxious state of mind, but rather to the body's physical responses to negative circumstances. When a situation is perceived as challenging or threatening, the body responds with a series of chemical reactions that affect heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other functions. These temporary adjustments help us adapt and survive, but when they happen too frequently or last too long they can produce lifelong chronic disease.

For children, whose bodies and minds are still growing, a well-tuned stress response system is especially important. High levels of early stress have been linked to impaired behavioral and emotional development as well as numerous health consequences later in life, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. Such consequences cost our society in many ways.

In their new book, Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley provide an excellent introduction to these and other issues. "Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease" is an overview of the scientific evidence for the importance of children's earliest experiences in determining later outcomes. This book raises urgent questions about how stress can create lasting negative impacts on behavioral and physical health. It is a call to action to translate science into public policy, and gives evidence that we must more wisely invest both public and private dollars in prevention.

Stress is not Always Dangerous

Positive stress is a normal part of learning and development. As children learn to cope with frustration, overcome obstacles and confront challenges, they will experience a certain amount of stress. This level of stress is usually safe and manageable, especially if a child has the support of a healthy home environment.

It is important to distinguish tolerable stress from toxic stress. Toxic stress is the result of serious events like a death in the family, a high-conflict divorce or a prolonged illness. It is potentially harmful, but sensitive and responsive parenting can protect children from long-term consequences. But in order for these stresses to be managed, parents and caregivers must be aware of the dangers, and must then be equipped with proper supportive response patterns. It is our collective responsibility to make education on how to manage these inevitable life events one of our highest priorities

In contrast to tolerable stress, toxic stress refers to persistent, unhealthy amounts of stress caused by chronically stressful conditions without the protective benefits of healthy caregiving. These stresses can eventually cause permanent damage. Once again, our community has the ability, if it has the will, to reallocate resources toward the prevention of toxic stress in children and families. Choosing not to do so means choosing to pay for negative outcomes on the back end, a wasteful expense for our community in both human and economic terms.

Toxic Stress During Pregnancy Affects the Baby

The brain is the primary stress organ: It is responsible for activating, monitoring and shutting down the body's reactions to stress. Infants' developing brains are particularly vulnerable; babies are affected by stress even in the protective environment of the womb. Since maternal cortisol levels affect the developing fetus, a mother's level of stress is directly related to the well-being of her baby. Positive and tolerable stress levels are safe, but toxic stress increases the risk of preterm delivery, low birth weight and other complications. It is also associated with impaired mental, behavioral and motor development in infancy.

This new way of thinking about the origins of adult health outcomes has important implications for policy. Promoting public health and reducing health disparities require solutions that target children's earliest years. It is clearer than ever before that health, achievement and success have their roots in the first months and years of life. Reducing adversity and stress in early childhood should be a key goal of efforts to improve the lives of children.

Barbara Holden Nixon is a consultant with The Urban Child Institute.

This article was originally published by The Commercial Appeal online: