Stresses in childhood can have lifelong consequences, not only for our mental development, but also for physical health and physical illnesses. But fortunately, there are also opportunities to reverse the negative impact.

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)


This is some of what emerges in a nice animated film entitled "A new understanding of the childhood brain", written by Nadja Oertelt, and published in the magazine The Atlantic

The film opens as follows:

In the early 2000s, researchers made several breakthroughs in understanding the importance of early childhood.


The ACE study

Reference is made here to the so-called ACE study, which included almost 17.000 adults, and which was of great importance for our view of the importance of stress in childhood.

The study showed that early experiences of trauma, violence, and abuse were associated with adverse outcomes in adulthood such as depression, school dropout, sexual violence, and heart disease. 

In other words, children's surroundings had a lifelong significance, not just mentally - but also in relation to physical illnesses and life expectancy. The film says:

The study found clear links between stress, trauma, childhood and a number of important causes of death in adulthood.


Watch the video here


Toxic stress

In the time after this study, childhood trauma became an important area of ​​research, and special attention was paid to what was called toxic stress.

Toxic stress is strong, frequent and / or prolonged trauma, violence or abuse. When experienced in childhood, toxic stress leads to an intensification of fear and stress areas in the brain.

These areas are overdeveloped and mean that the person becomes more sensitive to stressful events later in life. It also means that these people have a stronger tendency to overreact to stressful events in life.


The importance of prevention

But because we know that the brain is very malleable in the first three years of life, there are many opportunities to correct the effects of stress. The film argues that therapies that teach the child and family to deal with stress and strain, as well as positive and enriching environments, such as therapeutic foster homes, can reverse the effects of toxic stress on the brain.

Our understanding of the effects of childhood trauma has led to changes in social work, health care, and education.

Here, reference is made to important measures such as home visits by nurses to vulnerable families with infants, and development and placement in kindergartens.

The film concludes by pointing out that children have a unique ability to thrive and develop in a good way despite stress and negative surroundings. At the same time, they need positive role models, physical and mental stability, and enriching experiences.