Earlier this week the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) hosted a daylong Symposium on Child Health, Resilience & Toxic Stress in Washington, D.C. that brought together federal government officials, national thought leaders and medical professionals to discuss the emerging science of toxic stress.
According to the AAP, science shows that adversity experienced in childhood has long-lasting physical and emotional effects that have come be known as "toxic stress.” Toxic stress can occur when a child experiences chronic adversity without access to stable, supportive relationships with caring adults. These adverse childhood experiences can include physical and emotional abuse; neglect; exposure to violence; food insecurity; and economic hardship. An AAP 2011 policy statement found that toxic stress can affect a child's brain development and lead to the presence of many adult diseases, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and liver disease.
“[Currently], there are more randomized trials for leukemia than for effects of stress on children,” said James S. Marks, MD, MPH, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at the symposium. “This is about more than our children—it’s about our future as a people and a society, and the earlier you invest in children the better the return to society and to those children and families.”
During the symposium, the AAP announced the formation of the Center on Healthy, Resilient Children to launch in the next year or so, which will be a national effort coordinated by the AAP and many partners to support healthy brain development and prevent toxic stress. In addition to prevention efforts to keep children healthy, the Center will focus on ways to help pediatricians and others identify children who have experienced adversity and toxic stress and ensure they have access to appropriate interventions and supports.
"Pediatricians envision a world in which every child has every opportunity to become a healthy, successful adult," said James M. Perrin, MD, president of the AAP. "Achieving this will require strong, sustained investments in the health of the whole child, brain and body. It will require building upon our existing work and forging new partnerships across sectors and fields of expertise.”
NewPublicHealth spoke with Perrin following the symposium
NewPublicHealth: How familiar are pediatricians with the evidence surrounding the burden and response to toxic stress in children and families?
James Perrin: I think there is increasing awareness of toxic stress in pediatric practice, not only in community practice, but in our specialty practices, too. I think people are recognizing how critically important toxic stress is to the developing child and developing brain. And the increasing science in this area has been incredibly helpful for us to understand the potential permanent effects of toxic stress. But we also want to focus on positive ways to affect brain development. Reading to children, for example, affects brain development and brain growth in positive ways.