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Health & Fitness

The importance of safe, stable and nurturing environments for young children

Last week, I reconnected with an old friend who teaches at a local elementary school. We spoke about life and work and the challenges and joys of both.

She had had a hard week and shared the story of a child who had been acting out in her classroom. After attempts to manage the child’s behavior failed, she asked the child to stay in her classroom during recess to “help” her. During that time she asked if the child was upset about something.

She learned that the child’s mother had a new boyfriend who was mean and that the child had been left alone for hours at a time. Needless to say, my friend was very concerned about the child’s well-being and reached out to the school counselor to connect the family with resources.

While I was relieved to know that steps were being taken to prevent future abuse and neglect, I couldn’t help thinking about the long-term health effects of what had already occurred. Do you believe the death of a parent, being left alone for hours each day in front of the TV, or never having your feelings considered can lead to increased illness in one’s 20s, 30s and 40s?

Young children experience their world through their relationships with parents and other caregivers. When those relationships provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments, children are more likely to thrive physically and emotionally. Consider what happens when those foundational relationships are unsafe, unstable or abusive, and it’s not hard to imagine the long-term impact on a person’s physical and emotional health.

Assuring that all children experience safe, stable and nurturing environments is an important goal for public health. Adverse childhood experiences threaten healthy development in a child by undermining his or her sense of safety, security and being nurtured. A groundbreaking national public health study, the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, found that trauma in childhood is associated with chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness in adulthood. The experiences that are associated with negative impacts on a person’s health include abuse, neglect and having a parent who is incarcerated, or who has mental health or substance abuse issues.

When these intensely adverse experiences are sustained over a long period of time — weeks, months or years — without the support of a caring adult, the result is toxic stress. When a child feels threatened, stress hormones circulate through his or her body. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones impacts the developing brain and impairs the connection of brain circuits, which are especially vulnerable as they are developing during early childhood.

Toxic levels of stress hormones can cause a child to develop a low threshold for stress, becoming overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout life. They can suppress the body’s immune response and leave the child vulnerable to a variety of infections and chronic health problems. They can also damage an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, leading to learning deficits that can continue into adulthood.

Papers summarizing the scientific literature on the impact of toxic stress on the developing child can be found at developingchild.net.

Childhood trauma leading to toxic stress is, unfortunately, quite common. In 2011, 32 percent of Thurston County adults had three or more adverse experiences during childhood. Thurston County had the eighth highest ACEs score when compared to all 39 Washington counties.

Among adults in Thurston County, 21 percent had experienced physical abuse, and 15 percent had witnessed domestic violence during their childhood. In 2012, almost half of low-income Thurston County 10th-graders reported having experienced physical abuse at some point in their childhood.

It will take a concerted community effort to turn these numbers around. The Thurston Thrives Child and Youth Resilience action team, led by County Commissioner Sandra Romero and Liz Davis, chief executive officer of Northwest Venture Philanthropy, is working to improve child and youth resilience. Their strategic plan has an explicit goal of reducing adverse experiences and affording all children growing up in our county a safe and healthy environment. This work is critical for the long-term health and well-being of those living here.

In recognition of Public Health Week (April 7-13) and National Child Abuse Prevention Month (April), think about making a difference right here in your community by getting involved with Thurston Thrives. You also can learn more about preventing adverse childhood experiences and promoting childhood resiliency at the Community Summit on May 2, which is sponsored by the Junior League of Olympia, Thurston Thrives, and the Thurston Council for Children and Youth.

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