Mental Health Matters: Adverse childhood experiences: lifelong impacts

By Dr. Jeanine Hatt
Special to the Herald Democrat
Jeanine Hatt

Life’s difficulties are to be expected, but, for a young child, stresses such as neglect, abuse, or dysfunction in the home, can lead to a lifetime of poor physical and mental health. From before birth through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development, and early experiences determine whether a brain’s circuitry is sturdy or fragile.

About 20 years ago, researchers began studying the impact of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) on the developing brain. Both emotional and physical neglect or abuse, violence in the home, having a parent with mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, can weaken the developing brain and increase the body’s response to stress.

It was discovered that the more adversity in a child’s life, the more likely that child will have permanent negative effects in his response to stress and even in his brain structure. Additionally, adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.

But there is good news! From before birth through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development. Research has shown that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behavior, and health and a brain that is sturdy rather than fragile.

Parents, grandparents and other non-parent caregivers are extremely important to a child’s development. Research has shown that toddlers who have secure, trusting relationships with caregivers experience minimal stress hormone activation when frightened by a strange event, whereas those who have insecure relationships experience a significant activation of the stress response system.

Tolerable stress occurs when a child suffering more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury, has the support of caring adults. That child is less likely to suffer from the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress hormones. When strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, as excessive amounts of the stress hormone cortisol can disrupt developing brain circuits.

During this time of an historic global pandemic, with many families struggling with social isolation, loss of employment, health issues and dealing with homeschooling, there is higher risk for depression, substance abuse and even child abuse. It is important for caregivers to remember how important their attention and support is to the children they care for, and, when needed, seek out help and support.

Communities and governments also need to realize their responsibilities. Policies and programs that identify and support children and families who are most at risk for experiencing toxic stress is more important than ever, will help assure a more resilient, healthy child and adult and help prevent the high cost of managing the future negative consequences. (Referenced from: AAP and Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child.)

Dr Jeannine Hatt is a pediatrician who has served the children of Texomaland since 1980 and is affiliated with TexomaCare Pediatrics and on staff at Texoma Medical Center. She is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and supports the work and policies they promote in the US and globally.