The importance of children’s earliest years has long been recognised, but however our understanding of the underlying science has taken a significant leap in the past few decades. Recent Studies regularly document that the effects that a child’s earliest experiences can have on later life and adult health.
There is also a growing concern amongst 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 can manifest into neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and excessively harsh parenting.
The growing epidemic of domestic violence is therefore 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. As 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 will respond with a series of chemical reactions which affect heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other functions. These temporary adjustments help us adapt and survive, however when they happen too frequently or last too long, they can produce lifelong chronic disease.
For many children, whose bodies and minds are still growing, and developing a well-tuned stress response system is especially important. However 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.
Stress is not Always Dangerous
Positive stress is a normal part of everyday learning and development. As children learn to cope with frustration, overcome obstacles and confront challenges, they will regularly 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 and family life.
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. However, in order for these stresses to be managed, parents, teachers and caregivers must be very aware of the dangers and must then be equipped with proper supportive response patterns.
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 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.
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