Toxic Stress Among Young Children Can Lead to Serious Implications

Brain development in early childhood is critical and – if influenced negatively by toxic stress – can result in lifelong implications. Toxic stress occurs if children are regularly ignored, frequently experience violence or spend much of their time in highly stressful environments.

By the time children are 2 years old, the structure of their brain that will influence later learning is mostly formed, the research showed. This means that the most important brain growth and development – the kind that will physically form the brain – begins long before a child ever picks up a pencil, reads a book or goes to school.

“When a child’s brain has consistent and nurturing caregiver interactions in the early years, infants and toddlers are more likely to be robust learners throughout their lives,” Katie Fallin, assistant director of research and evaluation with First 5 LA, commented on the study. “At the same time, the negative impact of chronic neglect and stress at an early age can have dire consequences.”

For newborns and young infants, most of their emotional experiences happen during moments of interaction with their caregivers. Caregivers play a critical role in helping infants regulate their emotional responses. Healthy newborn and caregiver interactions usually occur around activities such as comforting, feeding and holding. Through these consistent and nurturing interactions, the child learns that she can trust that her needs will be met and her brain can focus on exploring and learning about the world around her.

When infants and toddlers are ignored on a regular basis, however, or frequently experience violence and spend much of their time in highly stressful and unpredictable environments without a loving and protective adult presence, they become exposed to toxic stress.

“While typical life stressors are not harmful if the caregiver is there to help calm the infant, toxic stress occurs when the body’s response system to stress is activated much of the time and there isn’t a comforting adult to help the child regulate their stress response,” Fallin said.

“When these children are older, their brains are more likely to interpret neutral events as potential threats. Their brains may spend more energy figuring out if they are in danger and, consequently, have less attention for things their peers are focused on and learning.”

Caregivers can reduce the impact of toxic stress experienced by babies and young children, however. The loving, nurturing relationship that parents, family members and teachers provide often acts as a buffer to the effects of toxic stress.

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