The healthy development of children can be affected by an excessive or prolonged stress response to the body and brain systems. Toxic stress can have detrimental effects on learning, behavior and health throughout life.
Learning to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies prepare to respond by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones like cortisol.
When a young child’s stress response systems are activated in an environment where relationships with adults are positive, these physiological effects are reduced. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems.
However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting, and the child sees these dampening relationships compromised, it can result in weakening of the brain systems and structure. The repercussions can last a lifetime.
In the absence of responsive relationships with the adults who care for them, the child’s stress response systems are and remain on alert. The cumulative cost increases the likelihood of developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems in childhood.
But not that… Children are at greater risk of later developing diabetes, heart disease, depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and other major health problems in adults.
Stress in childhood
Early childhood experiences play an important role in the development and function of the brain. Interactions with the child and his environment influence learning, behavior and long-term health.
It is essential for the development of a healthy brain structure that children have attentive caregivers. And that they develop positive relationships that help them learn to deal with stressful experiences.
In general, the stress response is a physiological response to an adverse event or a demanding circumstance. It includes biochemical changes in the neurological, endocrine and immune systems. However, stress is not always a negative phenomenon. Stress can be positive, tolerable, and toxic.
A positive stress response is a normal stress response and is essential for a child’s growth and development. Positive reactions to stress are infrequent, short-lived, and mild.
The child benefits from strong social and emotional buffers, such as parental reassurance and protection. The child gains motivation and resilience for each positive stress response, so that the biochemical reactions return to the baseline.
Responses to tolerable stress are more severe, more frequent, or longer lasting. The body reacts to a greater degree, and these biochemical responses have the potential to negatively affect the structure of the brain.
The toxic stress of childhood
Childhood toxic stress is an abnormal response to stress. This is a disorder that results in a sustained increase in cortisol levels and a persistent inflammatory state in which the body fails to normalize these changes whether or not the stressor goes away.
Toxic stress results in a prolonged activation of the stress response, with an inability of the body to return to basal levels in the constants that have been altered. A lack of support, reassurance, or emotional attachment from caregivers can prevent this from being a normal stress response.
Childhood toxic stress is a very serious problem. Children who experience toxic stress may have long-term adverse effects on their health, which may not manifest until adulthood.
These adverse health effects include inadequate coping skills, inadequate stress management, unhealthy lifestyles, mental illness and physical illness. The more negative the experiences of childhood, the more likely developmental delays and subsequent health problems, such as substance abuse, are to occur.
Brain development and toxic stress
Children display external behaviors, such as aggression, and internal behaviors, such as anxiety. The problem is that these behaviors are not unique to children: often, those around them only see an aggressive child who behaves badly, and not a child who tries to make people aware of the constant pain he feels.
The trauma of toxic stress and its effects can also have a subtle normalizing effect. Children who do not have a broader view of the world may come to think that domestic violence is normal, or that violence in the streets is as natural as rain.
Developmentally, a child who experiences adversity is at risk of permanent changes in brain structure, epigenetic alteration, and change in genetic function. The implications for long-term health and developmental effects are critical, and include an increased risk of stress-related illnesses.
The toxic stress response affects the neuroendocrine and immune network, and this response results in a prolonged and abnormal cortisol response. The resulting immune disruption, which includes a persistent inflammatory state, increases the risk and frequency of infections in children.
In addition, the toxic stress response is thought to play a role in the pathophysiology of depressive disorders, behavioral dysregulation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis. Adults who experienced adversity in their early childhood are also prone to suffer more from physical illnesses.
These poor health outcomes are varied and include alcoholism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, cancer, obesity, increased suicide attempts or ischemic heart disease… among many other conditions.
Experts recommend creating policies that minimize the impact of toxic stress on children. In particular, expert assistance should be made more accessible – for caregivers who may not have sufficient knowledge and skills – and support for existing intervention programs strengthened.