Chronic toxic stress and damage to the brain’s physical development.
We have seen from other articles that I have published on this site the severe and prolonged childhood trauma resulting in chronic toxic stress can damage the brain’s development in various regions (e.g. the amygdala and hippocampus).
Because the brain’s plasticity (physical changeability) is at its greatest the very young, the earlier the child/infant experiences chronic toxic stress, the greater the damage to the brain’s physical development is likely to be.
So how can such damage be prevented or reduced as much as possible?
- ideally, welfare agencies should identify and intervene in families in which a child is at risk of being adversely affected by toxic stress BEFORE any serious damage has occurred.
- once at-risk young people have been identified as being at-risk (e.g. due to abuse or neglect) welfare agencies need to provide the whole family with appropriate support and the child with appropriate care and nurturing to increase his/her resilience.
- educating the public in general about the extreme harm the experience of trauma and toxic stress in early life can do.
According to HHS Children’s Bureau, there are six main ‘protective factors’ that can make families more resilient and minimize the risk of abuse and neglect and thus prevent damage to the child’s developing brain; these are as follows:
- concrete support for parents
- education of families to increase their knowledge of effective parenting and normal child development
- nurturing and healthy bonds/attachments
- parental resilience
- social connections and support
- helping children to be socially and emotionally healthy
Because the younger the child, the more susceptible s/he is to incurring damage to their brain development, support from welfare services is particularly important for at-risk pregnant women and mothers with newborn babies. It is far more effective to intervene early and prevent damage occurring to the child’s brain development than it is to try to reverse such damage after it has occurred.
Furthermore, if prevention fails, because the younger the child, the more plastic (i.e. malleable) his/her brain is and, therefore,, the more susceptible to damage it is, the positive side of the coin is that this high level of brain plasticity also means that it can heal more effectively than would be the case later in life, especially if therapies that can help heal the brain are targetted at healing the specific regions of the brain that have been harmed by abuse/neglect/toxic stress. For example, the amygdala can be damaged by abuse/neglect/toxic stress and, therefore, where this is the case, therapies that aim to repair the amygdala would be especially appropriate (in relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published article: REDUCING ANXIETY BY CALMING THE AMYGDALA).
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).