What happens to a person in early childhood can have an impact for a lifetime. The implications of this truth are being highlights in research coming out of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. According to their findings, early childhood experiences and environments have a profound effect on a child’s developing brain. In the first years of life - also called the early sensitive period – a child’s brain develops rapidly. During this time, the child’s healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by dependable and responsive interaction with adults. These interactions can be small, but they are necessary for healthy growth. For example, when an adult responds to a baby’s cry or a parent responds to a toddler’s needs with care and attention. It has been proven that children who lack this type interaction experience a decrease in brain activity. Children who are placed in orphanages shortly after birth show dramatically lower brain activity when compared to their non-institutionalized peers.
The presence of a responsive and protective parental relationship is also important in helping the developing child’s brain cope with stress. Under typical conditions in the care of a family, a child learns to cope with everyday stresses, and physiological stress responses (including increased heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones like cortisol) quickly return to a baseline. When stress situations are frequent or prolonged – as in the case of extreme poverty or abuse –stress becomes toxic when the care of an adult is absent. Stress responses remain heightened and excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuitry.
As would be expected, the more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults who faced greater adverse experience in early childhood - like poverty, abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse, and exposure to violence – are more likely to face problems like depression, alcoholism, heart disease, and diabetes as adults. While these findings are troubling, there is hope. Research also indicates that early intervention can prevent these consequences. Children taken out of institutional neglect and placed into family situations showed increased IQ and were more likely to experience normal attachment behavior.
All of this research reaffirms the importance of family. Studies have shown that toddlers who have secure, trusting relationships with parents or non-parental caregivers experience minimal stress hormone activation when frightened, while those who have insecure relationships experience a significant stress reaction. Providing responsive, supportive relationships as early as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress on children.
The country of Rwanda has responded to research such as this by deciding to close all their orphanages and place those children into permanent families. The Orphan Care Initiative is coming alongside local churches to help reach this goal. You can help children leave the isolation of the orphanage by going on an Orphan Care PEACE trip or sponsoring a family in Rwanda to adopt a child from the orphanage.
Click below to learn more about early childhood adversity from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, or read more in this working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: