Toxic family environment wreaks havoc on baby's brain
- on July 20, 2011
So exactly how does trauma when you're a child cause you to have heart disease or diabetes when you're an adult?
It's a several step process, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. But it's pretty simple.
When you're born your brain isn't fully formed. Brains are built over time by growing nerve cells and making connections.
Baby's brains are forming connections between brain cells at a rate of 700 per second. For several years. Amazing.
The most-used connections become strongest. The least-used fade away. (Remember this when we get to types of stress.)
It's the interaction between the baby and her caregivers that shape those connections.
Healthy interactions promote healthy brain growth as well as healthy growth of our organ systems -- circulation, nervous, digestive, reproductive, etc.
Toxic interactions increase blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate, blood sugar, inflammatory substances. These disrupt the growth of the brain and other organ systems.
Now....we need stress to grow. But it's gotta be good stress. There are three kinds of stress:
- Positive stress: For babies and toddlers, this is good stress that results in brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in stress hormone levels. This stress occurs when kids learn to share toys, when they're told they can’t put 10 cookies in their mouth, explains Shonkoff. Children are learning how to adapt, live and cope. The stress that's happening at the biological level is mild, the child learns to deal with the stress with the help of an adult, and the system returns to normal.
- Tolerable stress: These are serious, but temporary stresses that are buffered by adults who help a child return to normal. Examples are a death in family, or living through a natural disaster. Shonkoff says that there's a question about which children will end up recovering from these situations, or who will be negatively affected with symptoms of PTSD, for example. "A plausible hypothesis is the extent to which children are helped to get through the stress by adults and how they're helped to adapt." At some point, the stress response system returns to baseline.
- Toxic stress: When a baby or a toddler or a young child experiences chronic neglect, regular exposure to violence, chronic abuse, and other trauma, their stress response is on all the time. If the adults in the child's life are unable to help him get through the stress to return to a normal level, or there is no adult to help a child return to normal, then the brain and body cannot turn off the stress response.
The stress response -- "flight, fright or freeze" -- is meant to deal with acute stress, Shonkoff points out, but it's not meant to be on all the time. If it is, it turns toxic, and physically disrupts the development of the brain and the organ systems. If children are in a constant state of trauma, they can't learn in school, and they can't learn how to interact socially, because they're basically too frightened of people. Unfortunately, we tend to call that "bad behavior" instead of seeing it for what it really is.
What is unknown is the point at which this damage is irreversible, and what causes that to vary from person to person. What is known is that there are many people who were not tossed a lifesaver before they crossed that line. We see those people every day -- among the homeless on the street, the severe alcoholics who miss work and lose themselves in alcohol-infused weekends, the severely depressed, the rage-aholics, the morbidly obese, the hoarders, etc.
A video of a presentation Shonkoff made at the Casey Family Programs Early Learning Symposium last November can be found here. If you want to learn more details about how disease prevention is an issue of early childhood, It's well worth watching.
This is the third in a series of posts that accompany questions from the simple version of the ACE Study questionnaire developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are 10 questions on the simple ACE Study questionnaire, and for the next two weeks, we'll be putting one question out each day in a poll. Today is the third question. Each day I'll take a look at some of the research — ACE, brain development, and epigenetic — to provide more information and context. I encourage you to take the simple ACE test for yourself. There's also a link to the full 200-question survey.