By: Harry Levine
It is no secret: there are countless children throughout the world today who are mired in poverty and chaos. Children who go hungry every day, children who lack access to clean water, children whose lives are threatened by violence and crime, and sadly, so many more children facing so many other hardships. Given these tragic circumstances, it is easy for one to see how so many children throughout the world grow up without any prospects for a happy, prosperous, and peaceful life. However, let’s suppose that all of the societal, cultural and environmental factors which were holding a child down were suddenly lifted. Let’s say a child under the boot of discrimination, living in a dangerous neighborhood, in a broken home, and in a poor school district, was suddenly placed in the exact opposite situation. Surely, given such a radical change of circumstances, this child should thrive? Now that the barriers to advancement have been lifted, shouldn’t the child’s future be bright? Well, no, not necessarily. To understand why this outcome is the case, we need to look at a crucial component in the wellbeing and success of children - one which psychologists and social scientists have truly began to grapple with in recent years: stress.
We are all stressed, each and every day; getting to class or work on time, getting enough sleep, eating well, maintaining happy personal lives, paying the bills, one could go on. All stressors in our lives cause us anxiety, which is simply a natural response to the problems stressors pose us. However, once these stressors are removed, this anxiety fades. But what if the stressors are subtler, and long-term? What if the state of anxiety that we enter when stressed doesn’t fade? The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders identifies this state as toxic stress, and it is key to understanding how stress can harm child development.
“Time heals all wounds,” as the old adage goes. But in the case of children and stress, this largely is not so. It all happens in the brain, and specifically the brain stem, when children are very young. The brainstem is the brain’s first part to undergo development - it is responsible for responding to perceived threats, and having us give emotional, “flight or fight” responses in the short-term. Because the brain stem is the first part of the brain to develop, it is what children use primarily to respond to stress. Once they are older, the part of the brain used for reason and complex thought, the frontal lobes, is developed enough that they can begin to respond rationally and calmly to stress.
Here’s the problem: what if young children are constantly exposed to stress? What if their brain-stems are always being stressed, to respond to constant adversity in a tough environment? The result of such a situation is that children’s brains are irrevocably altered, likely for life - their brain stems become overdeveloped, at the expense of the parts of the brain which deal with rational thought, such as the frontal lobes. Better Brain for Babies, funded by the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, states that an overdeveloped brainstem can lead to “anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, lack of empathy, and poor problem-solving skills.” In a study from the United Kingdom, boys were analyzed from birth until roughly their university years. The researchers found that boys who faced excess stress before the age of six ended up being more depressed in their teenage years than those who did not. In the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, it was seen that a stressful and overly-adverse childhood experience had negative cognitive effects on children for life. One can clearly see how the behaviors detailed earlier from an altered brain development, such as poor impulse control and poor problem solving skills, make it harder for children to attain employment and develop rich social lives as they age. Simply put, children can literally be trapped from the start.
So what are we to do? Well, Better Brains for Babies points out that “In order to handle stress and return to calm, young children needs caregivers to comfort and reassure them that they are safe.” In other words, it is not enough to simply address the “hard” aspects of poverty - such as food insecurity, access to clean water, and physical safety - later in life. Such changes would be welcome, but children will still suffer from the earlier trauma of poverty as they age. Time does not heal all wounds, in this case. We all agree that the health and wellbeing of children should be promoted everywhere - and that should their include personal, emotional health and wellbeing as well. An array of policy programs which contain an aspect of stress reduction - of providing intimate emotional support to young children in stressful situations - is clearly necessary in addressing this problem.
So, what would such programs entail? For starters, one idea would be the promotion of community centers, particularly those that provide programs for new parents. Such centers, if of low-cost to the parents, could provide education on key stress-relieving activities for children. Indeed, if the centers become a place where parents could bring their children - even if just for a limited period of time - to help relieve them of stress, it would go far. Another idea would be policies which would reward companies that allow their employees to bring their children to work. While there would be some obvious complications with this idea, such that the line of work parents are in would dictate its feasibility, it is nonetheless true that separation from parents can lead to higher stress levels in children. These policies, as well as others, would go far in bettering such children's prospects for future happiness.
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