The Child, The Family, The Society
Throughout childhood, every individual will experience challenges and various life stressors. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identifies three levels of stress that individuals experience across the lifespan. Positive stress includes minor occurrences that are essential to healthy development. They amount to a short-term “fight or flight” response, such as increased adrenaline or increased heart rate.
Tolerable stress is more severe, long-term adversity that a child faces while supported by a network of caring adults. The love, safety, and support offered by positive, nurturing relationships create a buffer that helps children overcome challenges in ways that allow for healthy growth and development during childhood and adolescence.
When children experience repeated exposures to various life stressors in the absence of positive, nurturing relationships, toxic stress develops. Toxic stress acquired through FICT — such as abuse, neglect, or having a caregiver that struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration — can be especially damaging. In these scenarios, those who are tasked with helping children adapt to life’s stressors are instead perpetuating the accumulation of toxic stress that has profound impacts on children’s developing bodies and brains.Since the brain is one of the epicenters that regulates communications between other parts of the body, impaired brain development during childhood can lead to lasting health impacts in adulthood. In adolescence, for example, those who have experienced toxic stress have increased risk for developing poor coping skills, including the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. FInally, toxic stress is associated with numerous chronic conditions in adulthood, including obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, STDs, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
Children do not grow and develop in isolation, but rather, they depend on the caregivers who are available to love and support them. That is why FICT can have such profound effects — the adult figures who are inflicting harm on a child are the caregivers who should be the most instrumental in fostering healthy development in their child. When children must be placed in foster care for their safety and well-being, this removal only further fractures family units. While the child welfare system is changing to focus on prevention and family preservation, such as with the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, further work must be done to strengthen families before family-induced trauma can occur.
Strengthening families matters. Research demonstrates that positive childhood experiences are critical to healthy development. Furthermore, adult figures who provide safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for children, while facilitating positive experiences with them, are instrumental in preventing childhood trauma. Our current system is very reactive in dealing with the repercussions of broken family dynamics. However, in order to prevent family-induced trauma, we must focus on strengthening the family unit.
One way to empower families is to help them develop protective factors that aim to strengthen their family unit, promote healthy child development, and prevent abuse and neglect within the home. The Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Strengthening Families approach engages families and communities to promote the development of five key strengths: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and social and emotional competence of children.
The effects of toxic stress caused by FICT do not simply remain contained within the family unit—these effects have profound implications for society as a whole. The youth of today are the future of tomorrow, and it is our responsibility as a society to invest in our youth in order that they may thrive in adulthood.
In the United States, there are approximately 450,000 children currently in the foster care system. Many of these youth shift from placement to placement without ever feeling like they have a safe, permanent place to call home. Their lives generate a state of toxic stress by not knowing where their next meal will come from, when they will change schools again, or who they can trust. When foster children spend much of their lives focused on survival, they are left with little capacity to think about who they could become in the future. In many cases, no adult or mentor figure has ever encouraged these youth that with their skills and passions, they can have a future.
There is sufficient evidence to support the association between toxic stress in childhood and poor outcomes in the future, and this can have large financial repercussions for societies at large. As a result of toxic stress, children who have endured various forms of trauma have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes—the part of the brain responsible for executive processes, such as decision making, self-regulation, and impulse control. As children enter adolescence, these brain changes can, in part, explain increased youth engagement in risk-taking behavior. This can lead to increased risk for negative social and economic outcomes in adulthood, such as higher risks of poor educational attainment, unemployment, poverty, homelessnes, and incarceration. While there is no true way to measure the financial impact of family-induced trauma, researchers estimate that the nonfatal child maltreatment lifetime cost is $830,928 per victim. The estimated economic burden for all investigated and substantial incidences of child maltreatment was $2 trillion. These estimates consider not only health care costs, but also costs associated with child welfare, the criminal justice system, special education programs, loss of productivity, and overall decreased quality of life.
In the absence of family figures who can provide safe, stable nurturing relationships, community members must commit to support these youth as they grow and develop in order that they may build resilience in the face of toxic stress. It is not sufficient as a society to allow family-induced trauma to persist and rely on the hope that children will become resilient themselves—we must create resilient communities. Our political and social systems have the potential to create policies and practices that prevent family-induced trauma and give all youth the opportunity to thrive.