More than three out of five youth in the United States will experience at least one adverse event during their childhood, according to a landmark study conducted by Kaiser Permanente that dates back 25 years.
In 1997, the Kaiser study introduced a concept known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) to define the connection between abuse, neglect and other household challenges and their effect on a person’s health and well-being later in life.
At the time, Kaiser reported that 61% of children in 25 states studied had at least one ACE that resulted in ‘toxic’ stress – severe, long-lasting impacts such as family violence, parental depression, physical or emotional abuse, and others. In subsequent studies, Kaiser reported that one in six children had experienced four or more ACEs.
Kansas was not included in Kaiser’s original studies, but data on behavioral risk factors for the state’s youth has been collected since the 1990s.
Early childhood is the most sensitive time for brain development, or a time when the brain forms neural pathways that leads to lifetime cognitive development. It’s like laying out the grid of a town according to your experiences. It’s going to shape the way you view the world.
Some stress is good for children. Coping with small everyday stresses, such as having a toy taken away by another child, helps the brain learn to deal with challenges and prepares the child to handle more serious stresses.
Tolerable stresses may include dealing with the effects of a natural disaster, especially when the child receives support from a loving caregiver. In those cases, the child’s stress response system returns to baseline once the adversity is removed.
But toxic stress can cause long-term negative effects. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that repeated exposure to childhood adversity and the resulting toxic stress can lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy coping behaviors.
Further, the CDC said over the course of one’s life, toxic stress as a child can lead to increased risk of physical injury, sexually transmitted infections, mental health problems, maternal and child health problems, teen pregnancy and a wide range of chronic diseases. The leading causes of death — cancer, diabetes, heart disease and suicide — have all been linked to ACEs.
Fortunately for those who have suffered through childhood trauma, it is possible to re-train the brain. This may be very difficult at first, because we learn about who we can trust at a very early age and if those first experiences or relationships are unstable and unpredictable, we learn we cannot rely on others.
However, social connections and support is vital to healing. There are a number of strategies and practices that people who have experienced trauma use in their journey of healing, such as mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy, journaling and more. It is really individualized and a process or journey. There are many groups in communities across the nation that provide support, encouragement and a safe space for individuals to heal.
A 2017 study reports that family and community are among the important buffers for alleviating or preventing the effects of toxic stress.
We quickly pass judgment when we see a child or family struggling or displaying some of the signs and symptoms of toxic stress, without knowing their situation or story.
Family-level buffers include supportive relationships, family cohesion or ‘sticking together,’ parental relationships, stable caregiving and stable employment.
Community buffers include non-family relationships and social support; religion; community cohesion; civic engagement and economic development. We need to work on policies, systems and environmental changes, such as family-friendly work policies and changing social norms that relate to child development, child safety and discipline.