Shielding Young Brains from the Effects of Toxic Stress

Nov 13, 2013, 3:45 PM, Posted by Kristin Schubert

young mother with her children

Before the science on addiction was developed, we blamed smoking on bad choices. Once we understood how the brain worked, we were able to devise strategies to change behavior, and smoking plummeted. 

As David Bornstein points out in two outstanding recent New York Times columns, the science of toxic stress is setting the stage for another health revolution that is just as far-reaching. It is forcing us to rethink the way communities deliver services─health care, education, and more─to our most vulnerable.

Read the first column

Read the second column

Every day, there are young children who are abused. Who witness violence in their homes or neighborhoods. Who are malnourished. Or who have parents who struggle with drug or alcohol use. We now know that those adverse experiences change the way their young brains develop, and affect their mental and physical well-being later in life. These children are more likely to have heart disease, cancer, and hypertension as adults. They are more likely to use drugs, suffer from depression, and commit suicide. They are more likely to drop out of school, spend time in prison, and be homeless. 

Understanding the root of so many problems actually gives us hope that we can prevent them. One of the programs Bornstein highlights is Child First, an RWJF grantee that intervenes to stabilize the home environment and protect children who are at very high risk of being exposed to toxic stress. One reason why Child First works is that it treats the whole family, addressing issues like depression or housing instability with parents and caregivers while focusing on the needs of very young, very vulnerable children. By giving parents the tools and supports they need to be nurturing and stable caregivers, they realize that they are a powerful force for strengthening their child’s emotional, social, and physical development. That holistic approach has been shown to shield young brains from the effects of traumatic stress and enables healthy, strong family relationships to flourish.

We’re just now scratching the surface of what’s possible with new science and solutions on our side. We still have so much to learn. But the success of programs like Child First─and the rise of hundreds of other efforts to apply the science of how we prevent and mitigate exposure to toxic stress to the real world─tell us that this is the wave of the future.