Trina was born addicted to heroin, although she didn’t learn why drugs “called her name” until she was in her thirties. Her parents were addicts and alcoholics, and domestic violence was creating stress in her tiny body before Tina was even born, releasing a barrage of adrenaline, cortisol, and other fight-or-flight chemicals into her developing body and brain.
Trauma continued into her childhood and early teen years: neglect and abandonment; long-term sexual abuse at the hands of multiple perpetrators; repeated rape, verbal, and physical abuse while in foster care; natural disasters; witnessing shootings—the list goes on.
Trina grew up to develop chronic nausea and vomiting, respiratory disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other chronic illnesses. Health experts correlate her medical challenges to
Adverse childhood experiences create toxic stress. According to the DNA Learning Center, “toxic stress is a term used by psychologists and developmental neurobiologists to describe the kinds of experiences, particularly in childhood, that can affect brain architecture and brain chemistry.” These negative experiences, which often include severe abuse, influence development of physical and mental health and what childhood experts refer to as brain architecture.
Stressors may be physical (sexual abuse), emotional (verbal abuse), or environmental (living in unsafe housing). Toxic stress occurs when a child is exposed to powerful, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support.
Children who experience toxic stress early in life often develop adverse health effects that show up in their adult years. The number of adverse experiences and their duration correlate to the likelihood of developmental delays and health problems in adulthood such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illness, substance abuse, and mental illness.
Preventing and Reversing the Effects of Toxic Stress
Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible are core to preventing and reversing the effects of toxic stress. Serve and return activities shape the development and architecture of a child’s brain. A child cries, smiles, gestures, or babbles, and an adult responds with nurturing words, facial expressions, eye contact, or physical touch. This child initiation and response builds neural pathways in the child’s brain that create the means for communication and social skills.
Responsive relationships early in a child’s development are essential for their development and well-being.
When a child does not receive serve-and-return responses, their brain does not receive the stimulation it craves, and their stress response is activated. Television and technology cannot fulfill this need for children, who need eye contact, touch, vocal response, and interaction.
For more information on how to practice serve and return interactions with your child, click HERE.