Early Childhood Mental Health: Toxic Stress and Addressing ACEs
The idea that young children are somehow immune or elastic to traumatic events, that they can weather the storm and come out unscathed, is misleading. The experiences we have in the first few years of life, positive and negative, can have a profound impact for the entirety of our lives.
Physiological traumas that occur early in life are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs are events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being, when not properly addressed. These experiences range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse – to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian.
When we face adversity, our bodies respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and releasing a stress hormone called cortisol, which triggers your natural “fight or flight” response to stress. A certain amount of stress is healthy. It allows children to practice addressing challenges and build resilience. However, when it occurs over a prolonged period of time, without proper intervention, this stress, known as toxic stress, can inhibit healthy child development and permanently change the brain’s architecture.
Childhood trauma has been linked to numerous negative outcomes in adulthood, and research has increasingly identified the long-term, negative side-effects of ACEs – from physical to mental health. According to the CDC, individuals who had traumatic experiences in childhood are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, encounter chronic disease and less likely to realize opportunity.
Unlike adults who have learned to regulate emotion, a child’s behavior is often an outward display of what they’re feeling on the inside. Without the proper support from adults and stress management skills, young children respond to stress in unhealthy ways. These responses can be disruptive and are often labeled as behavior issues.
Fortunately, when problems occur, early intervention can be extremely effective in mitigating the long-term impact of ACEs. During the early years, when the majority of children spend time in child care settings, teachers can play a critical role in helping children build healthy social-emotional and coping skills.
How The Family Conservancy is Addressing ACEs
Our early childhood mental health services help early educators and parents support healthy social and emotional development for children. We offer parent education and teacher support through partnerships with area child care programs that serve a high percentage of children who have experienced ACEs. These services meet the social-emotional needs of children, and build the capacity of teachers to address the needs of children who exhibit behavioral challenges so they are ready to learn and be successful.
Learn more about The Family Conservancy’s Early Childhood Mental Health Services.