Mind Matters — The Effects of Childhood Adversity Are Prolonged

Here I am looking out onto the expansiveness of an Arizona landscape of grey mountains and mammoth boulders, nevertheless considering the effects of childhood adversity.

Psychologists, pediatricians, neuro-scientists, among others, all know from their various research studies that childhood adversity can have profound, deleterious effects on a person developmentally, not only psychologically, but physically as well.

First, let’s define childhood adversity. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child considers three types of stress responses (this is not about the actual stressors themselves) in young children: positive, tolerable and toxic responses. The last relates to childhood adversity.

Stress is a physiological state. When a child is in a supportive atmosphere with adults who are caring and responsive, he or she can more readily cope with the stressors.

Anxiety and frustration is a part of life. For a child, stressors such as the first day of school or getting an immunization can be “positive” when the environment is “stable and supportive.” These experiences are part of learning coping skills.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a “tolerable” stress response occurs when a child encounters “non-normative experiences,” such as the death of a family member, serious illness, difficult divorce, natural disaster, etc., and there is present a supportive and caring environment. What differentiates the “tolerable” from the “toxic” is the presence of adult caring relationships that buffer the child’s experience of adversity and help the child to “de-stress.”

Most dangerous to the child and to his or her future development as an adult is “toxic” stress, whereby the child is continually in a stress response to a hostile environment in which there is a lack of supportive adult relationships. Risk factors include but are not limited to, child abuse or neglect, poverty drug and alcohol abuse, maternal depression, the continual witnessing of violence in the home or community.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study of 17,000 adults supported the above conclusions regarding childhood stress. It was found that more than one in five adults in the study experienced multiple adverse experiences as a child. Furthermore, adverse childhood experiences were linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer in adulthood, as well as to mental health and substance abuse issues.

Given all the data from various fields of research, one might ask why there is yet to be a paradigm shift in our treatment of children—whether those children are crossing the border to escape the violence in their countries of origin or they are experiencing the violence in our own inner cities.

It has been said, “if we want the future to be different, we must make the present different.” Certainly children are the future, and what is done to children not only affects them but epi-genetically affects generations of their children as well.

Traumatic stress specialists Robert Macy, Ph.D., and James Gamborino, Ph.D., concur that a new way of thinking about children and adolescents is in order: Rather than society controlling the child, society needs to protect the child. As Macy says, “Traumatic childhood events are documented in the histories in as much as 98.6 per cent of juvenile delinquents. We have to stop asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ask this question: ‘What happened to you?’”

Gambarino adds that both the clinician and the law enforcer don’t recognize traumatic events that can lay the foundation for violent behavior.

So what is the antidote? Early childhood education, sound medical care, all through the life span, but especially prenatally, parenting education, nutrition, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Sounds like pie in the sky? Well, if we don’t take care of the children who are our future then maybe Chicken Little would be right—the sky will be falling. I’d rather opt for the pie myself.