Toxic stress in early childhood can cause lifelong difficulties
January 7, 2015
Craig — Imagine being a young child and facing constant stress or instability in your home with no safe place to turn.
Such a situation creates what is known as toxic stress. Last month, early childhood educators and representatives from local organizations gathered to better understand and learn how to address the issue in Moffat County children.
"Toxic stress is when a child is exposed continually to a high level of stress that they can't adjust to or make sense of without the help of an adult," said early childhood expert Jane West. "Without the benefit of an adult to buffer the child… that child learns to stay on high alert."
Early childhood organization Connections 4 Kids sponsored the seminar offered by West, who owns Heart of the West Counseling in Denver and consults with childcare centers and families on early childhood issues.
"It disrupts the brain's architecture, so that the stress areas become in young children the more developed parts of the brain," West explained. "We want to get to them so it doesn't become a way of life, a way of being."
The causes of toxic stress include adverse experiences in early childhood such as extreme poverty, abuse, or neglect, sometimes in relation to parental substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence, according to a brief from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
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"The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems," according to the brief. "Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease and diabetes."
Bonnie Robertson, Moffat and Routt counties program coordinator for Northwest Rocky Mountain Colorado Court Appointed Special Advocates, works to support local children in the court system who have suffered abuse or neglect.
"We see it all, to be honest: developmental delays, inability to show emotions in appropriate manners, a lack of inability to socialize and/or connect with others, attachment problems," Robertson said. "We are always thinking in the back of our mind about what our children have been through, how it has effected them and what we can do or recommend to help them heal."
Participants in the seminar, including Robertson, learned tools to help address the problem. Moffat County School District Early Childhood Center Director Stephanie Davis said teachers learned that setting up a quiet, safe place in the classroom for kids to go can help those who act out aggressively.
"While some children that are 'stressed' act out with physical aggression, others withdraw and show limited emotions," Davis said. "Getting to know our students and their families helps us meet individual needs more effectively."
Davis said additional training for parents in the community would be beneficial, explaining what toxic stresses are and how to eliminate them whenever possible.
"The big takeaway is that what matters in early childhood is that kids are exposed to enriching things and have good relationships to adults," West said. "There's this primary period when the brain is growing and developing connections, so we're hoping that kids have positive experiences and connections to help them grow."
Those looking to help local kids can contact Robertson at 970-620-2342 to learn more about volunteering for CASA.