The physical effects of toxic stress can weaken the structure of the child brain development stages with long-term consequences for learning, behavior and physical and mental health. The healthy development of children can be affected by the excessive or prolonged response to stress systems in the body and brain. In fact, toxic stress can have harmful effects on learning, behavior, and health throughout life.
Learning to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy childhood development. When we are threatened, our body is prepared to respond by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, such as cortisol.
When a young child’s stress response systems are activated in an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are cushioned. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems. However, if the response to stress is extreme and lasting and the child sees these buffer relationships compromised, the result can weaken the systems and structure of the brain. The repercussions can be for a lifetime.
In the absence of response relationships with adult caregivers, a child’s stress response systems are placed on high alert and remain there. The accumulated cost increases the likelihood of developmental delays, learning problems and behavior problems in children as well as diabetes, heart disease, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism and other important health problems in adults.
Extensive biological research shows that chronic and severe stress can become toxic to developing brains and biological systems when a child experiences significant adversity, such as poverty, abuse, neglect, violence in the environment, substance abuse or mental illness.
Toxic Stress in child brain development stages
The experiences of early childhood play an important role in how the brain develops and in its functioning. Interactions with the child and their environment affect long-term learning, behavior, and health. For the development of a healthy brain structure, it is fundamental that the child has receptive caregivers and that they develop positive relationships that help them learn to manage stressful experiences.
In general, the response to stress is a physiological response to an adverse event or demanding circumstance and includes biochemical changes in the neurological, endocrine and immune systems. However, stress is not always a negative phenomenon. Stress can be positive, tolerable and toxic.
A positive response to stress is a normal response to stress and is essential for a child’s growth and development. Positive responses to stress are rare, short-lived and mild.
The child receives support with strong social and emotional shock absorbers, such as tranquility and parental protection. The child acquires motivation and resistance for each positive response to stress so that the biochemical reactions return to the baseline.
The responses to tolerable stress are more severe, frequent or sustained. The body responds to a greater degree and these biochemical responses have the potential to adversely affect brain structure.
For a tolerable stress response, once adversity has eliminated the brain and organs recover completely after the child is protected with receptive relationships and with strong social and emotional support.
Toxic childhood stress
Toxic childhood stress is an abnormal response to stress that consists of a disorder that results in a sustained increase in cortisol levels and a persistent inflammatory state in which the body fails to normalize these changes, regardless of whether or not the disappearance of the stressor.
Toxic stress results in prolonged activation of the stress response, with the body’s failure to return to basal levels in the constants that have been altered. The fact that there is a lack of support, reassurance or emotional attachment on the part of the caregivers can prevent a normal stress response.
Toxic childhood stress is a very serious problem. Children who experience toxic stress are at risk for long-term adverse health effects that may not manifest until adulthood. These adverse health effects include inadequate coping skills, inadequate stress management, unhealthy lifestyles, mental illness, and physical illness.
The more adverse childhood experiences are, the more likely it is that developmental delays and subsequent health problems will appear, such as heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.
Child brain development and toxic stress
Children experience external behaviors, such as aggression, and internal behaviors, such as anxiety and depression. The problem is that these behaviors are not unique to children whose development has been affected by stress and trauma, and often the people around the child only see an aggressive child acting …, and not a child who is trying to make someone aware of the constant pain they are experiencing.
The trauma that causes toxic stress and its effects can also have the subtle effect of normalization. Children who do not have a broader view of the world may come to think that domestic violence is normal, or that violence on the streets is as natural as rain.
In terms of child brain development stages, a child experiencing adversity is at risk of permanent changes in brain structure, epigenetic alteration and modified genetic function. The implications for long-term health and effects on development are critical and include an increased risk of stress-related illness.
The response to toxic stress affects the neuroendocrine-immune network, and the response leads to a prolonged and abnormal cortisol response. The resulting immune dysregulation, which includes a persistent inflammatory state, increases the risk and frequency of infections in children. In addition, it is believed that the response to toxic stress plays a role in the pathophysiology of depressive disorders, the lack of behavioral regulation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis.
It is also known that adults who suffered hardships in early childhood can also experience more physical illnesses and poor health outcomes. These poor health outcomes are varied and include alcoholism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, cancer, obesity, increased suicide attempts or ischemic heart disease, among many other processes.
Experts recommend creating policies that minimize the impact of toxic stress on child brain development stages. Some suggestions include: making more accessible expert assistance – for caregivers who do not have sufficient knowledge and skills to help young children who show symptoms of toxic stress – and increasing support for existing intervention programs.