Harvard releases guide about toxic stress in childhood
The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University (CDC Harvard) has shared important information about the role that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have in future outcomes for children – physically, emotionally and mentally – linking ACEs to toxic stress, and outlining ways in which early childhood education and care (ECEC) services can work together to minimise the impact on children.
According to the research, ACEs – which can include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence – have a correlation to the likelihood of an adult suffering heart disease, diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse later in life.
Summarising the research in an infographic, the CDC Harvard have explained the correlation between early childhood adversity and poor outcomes later in life, describing how a build up of stress over time (termed toxic stress) means that ACES can “get under the skin” and trigger biological reactions in children which lead to poor long-term outcomes.
The research body around toxic stress is not new – eighteen years ago, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child coined the toxic stress phrase, to describe extensive scientific knowledge about the effects of excessive activation of stress response systems on a child’s developing brain, as well as the immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system. Experiencing ACEs triggers all of those systems, which interact and impact on the outcome for the child. Children who experience ACEs in isolation, or infrequently, are less likely to be impacted longer term, where a child who experiences multiple ACEs over an extended period of time – especially without supportive relationships with adults – is more likely to have an excessive and long lasting stress response, researchers said.
Adversity also included the presence of violence in the child’s community, and experiences with racism and chronic poverty, with children being unable, at a biological level, to separate threats from outside the home environment from those within the home environment.
Researchers emphasised the importance of children receiving trauma informed care – that is, access to services who understood that problematic behaviour may need to be treated as a result of ACEs or other traumatic experiences someone has had, as opposed to addressing them as wilful or punishable actions. This is an important point of note for all ECEC services, but particularly those working with children who have developmental vulnerabilities, services situated in vulnerable socioeconomic areas, or services who are working with children from refugee backgrounds.
A number of suggestions are put forward by CDC Harvard to support services working with children who have experienced ACEs. These include:
- Learning about trauma informed care
- Working with allied health and welfare professionals to form a team around the child
- Using mindfulness and wellbeing practices with children, such as meditation, yoga and physical exercise
- Working with communities and other agencies to address the root causes of ACEs, by reducing or eliminating basic stressors such as food, housing, material needs, and more entrenched sources of stress, such as substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, discrimination and poverty.
- Supporting children (and their families) to build core life skills – planning, focus, self regulation – which can also strengthen the building blocks of resilience.
Researchers said that the three principles – reducing stress, building positive relationships, and strengthening life skills – are the best long-term preventative to combat ACEs.