How Stress Affects Your Child’s Brain, Part II

How Stress Affects Your Child’s Brain, Part II

Two weeks ago, this blog featured a short video, which you can watch here, explaining how chronic stress affects the brains of children and how those changes can influence behavior (and drive their parents a little crazy at times). This week we present another amazing video that, in 16 riveting minutes, goes even deeper into the topic.

The video features the charismatic Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explaining the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which she calls “something that everybody needs to know about.” It has particular resonance and importance for foster-adoptive parents. And if you’d rather read than watch, here’s a transcript:

The ACE study, conducted by Kaiser and the Centers for Disease Control, asked 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. Those include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence.

After collecting the scores, the researchers compared them to the subjects’ health history. They made two remarkable discoveries: that adverse childhood experiences are very common (67 percent of the population had at least one), and that people with higher adverse-experience scores reported worse health outcomes, such as higher rates of disease or depression.

Humans exposed to adverse situations undergo neurological changes to the brain that cause them to engage in high-risk behavior that can be hazardous to their health. But even in the absence of risky behavior, the repeated activation of the stress response in the just-developing brains and bodies of children affects their immune systems. Chances are, because of the history that brought them into the child welfare system, foster children have experienced more adversity than non-foster children before they are placed in loving foster-adoptive homes.

But once they are with a supportive family, the healing can begin. From the first contact—long before children are placed–Sierra Forever Families educates its resource families about the effects of chronic stress on a child’s brain. Training families about trauma-informed parenting is as routine as educating new parents about covering electrical outlets or having a first-aid kit on hand.

Dr. Harris notes that the best method for healing the impacts of toxic stress are to support families with a multidisciplinary treatment team that provides, among other services, home visits, mental health care, holistic interventions and, if necessary, psychiatric medication. Sierra Forever Families follows this model, with its social workers assisting the family in getting to know their team of helpers and taking the lead in coordinating services.

Sierra also helps families create and reinforce what are called “natural supports.” Especially during the adoptive home study process, Sierra’s professionals talk in detail with families about the support they are likely to need after children are placed. Wise families start building that base ASAP, gathering around them extended family, friends, their faith community, mentors, SFF Ambassador families, and support group peers. Their emotional and practical support will come in handy on those days when your kid’s brain is putting you to the parenting test.


Written by Joyce Miller, LCSW

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