Violence is just one part of childhood trauma. So why are we focusing so much on childhood violence?Three Types of Stress
Five years before the first of many papers from the ACE Study was published in 1998, Dr. Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, with Dr. Eliot Stellar, used the term “allostatic load” to describe how repeated chronic stress – “toxic stress” – produces stress hormones that create wear and tear on the brain and the body.
Over the last five years, the concept of the effects of toxic stress on children was amplified by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. He and his team describe three types of stress: Positive stress, which children need to help them grow and thrive. Tolerable stress, which is temporary, and where a caring adult helps a child to recover. And toxic stress — extreme, frequent or extended activation of the body’s stress response without the buffering presence of a supportive adult.
This toxic stress – the kind that comes from living with a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic parent, for example – damages the function and structure of a kid’s brain. Toxic stress floods the brain with stress hormones. When a kid’s in fight, flight or freeze mode, their thinking brain is offline and doesn’t develop as it should.
Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze – that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So they can’t learn. Their schools respond by suspending or expelling them, which further traumatizes them.
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A shorter version of this story appears in the July-August 2016 issue of Health Progress.
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