According to child development experts who warn of an emerging phenomenon of ”toxic stress” in young people who have experienced prolonged trauma.
In a state of constant alert, the child’s ”fight or flight” stress response goes into overdrive, causing physiological changes to the architecture of the brain.
The results can be catastrophic. As cell growth is impaired and the formation of healthy neural circuits is disrupted, the child struggles to regulate emotions.
“We’re already seeing it now, with major problems with children who are suffering toxic stress and increasingly have poor social skills and poor capacity to form relationships.” According to Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation.
Changes in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotional control – cause shrinkage, which in turn can trigger learning and behavioural problems, difficulty with impulse control and a heightened sense of rage and self-loathing.
Evidence is also emerging that the effects of toxic stress can last a lifetime, putting the child at increased risk of mental and physical health problems and cognitive impairment in adulthood. The concern is that the trans-generational consequences of family violence, abuse, neglect, economic hardship and parental mental illness and drug and alcohol problems will compound over time.
“We’re already seeing it now, with major problems with children who are suffering toxic stress and increasingly have poor social skills and poor capacity to form relationships,” said Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation.”
“So in the future what we’re going to see when these kids are adults is a lot more anti-social behaviour, a lot more violence and aggression and social problems. We’re going to have to deal with the cost to the community of that increased level of violence that arises from children who haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to regulate their emotions.”
Stress in itself is not damaging. The increase in heart rate or hormone levels a child might experience on the first day of school or when getting an immunisation can be a healthy and essential part of childhood development that will promote resilience.
Even traumatic events such as the death of a close relative, divorce or a natural disaster can be overcome if the stress activation is time-limited and the effects are buffered by loving, supportive relationships.
But the evidence suggests that stress turns toxic when the trauma is prolonged and when both parents are emotionally unavailable.
“If you’re constantly highly charged in threatening situations or in situations where you can’t calm down because information is coming at you at light speed, then your brain doesn’t have the basis on which it knows how to change its emotional state,” Tucci said.
“One of the major tasks of parenting is to help kids regulate their emotional arousal state. So if a kid’s getting really upset, mum and dad give them a cuddle and they calm, their whole body calms because the physiology changes. The children learn how to do it through experience but the problem is we’ve got an increasing number of parents who find it difficult to regulate their own emotions as a result of problems they’re experiencing themselves, so they’re not passing on those skills to their children.”