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March 11, 2021

The Impact of Family-Induced Childhood Trauma on Society

The effects of toxic stress caused by family-induced childhood trauma 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 you thin order that they may thrive in adulthood.

In the United States, there are over 400,000 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, homelessness, 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 $2trillion. 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.

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