The Lasting Effects of Toxic Stress on Children Ages of Zero to Three

A child’s early environment has lasting effects on his or her long-term development. Even though very young children might not always understand what they see and hear, they absorb much from their surroundings and are greatly affected by the adults in their life who they rely upon for support and security.

Baby ToxicStress

Repetitive negative experiences, which can lead to “toxic stress,” can have a significant impact on our future emotional, mental, and physical health, the effects of which can even last into adulthood. However, caring adults, like parents and caregivers, can help lessen the effects of toxic stress and help children heal.

What kinds of experiences lead to toxic stress? 
 
We all undergo stress from time to time. However, negative experiences which are chronic and severe can result in toxic levels of stress. Adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”), such as neglect, abuse, household dysfunction or witnessing substance abuse, can have a cumulative negative effect on children. 
 
The body’s emergency response system will be activated repetitively as a result of these detrimental experiences. If the body is always in overdrive mode and constantly responding to triggers, the stress response system will be excessively taxed, leading to toxic levels of stress. If supportive adults are not present to help shield them from lasting damage, the effects of toxic stress experienced by young children can be lifelong. 
 
What are the long term effects of toxic stress? 
 
A child’s brain experiences the most growth between the ages of birth to three years old. However, this development can be negatively impacted if a child is also enduring toxic stress during this same time period. Not only is normal brain development hindered, but excessive activation of the body’s stress response system can lead to lasting wear and tear on the nervous system, causing potentially lifelong consequences. 
 
Decades of research have shown the connection between exposure to ACEs and long-term negative effects on the body and mind. Studies show that the more ACEs a child experiences, the greater chances of poor outcomes later in life, including an increase in risk of stress-related diseases, obesity, smoking, poor academic achievement, depression, and substance abuse.
 
What can be done to lessen the effects of toxic stress in young children?
 
People who have experienced even numerous ACEs are not irreparably damaged. Intervention can mitigate the long-term effects of toxic stress. Strong, caring and loving relationships with adults can buffer children from the impact of negative experiences. 
 
According to the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University, three core principles, backed by science, are the most effective ways to prevent the long-term effects of toxic stress: building responsive relationships with adults, reducing levels of stress, and strengthening life skills. The Center recommends that policymakers are mindful of these principles as they devise methods to address the adverse effects of toxic stress. 

Dr. Arturo Brito, MD, Executive Director of The Nicholson Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in New Jersey, recently appeared on Caucus: New Jersey with Steve Adubato. On the program, he discussed the effects of toxic stressors on children from the ages zero to three, and how New Jersey lawmakers are helping to combat this critical issue. 

“If we take care of our children from our state, it’s actually going to improve the health of our communities,” said Dr. Brito. “It’s just not only the right thing to do, it’s really the smart thing to do for the benefit of the state’s health and economy, and I think we’re foolish not to address it directly.”