Early Childhood Adversity

What happens to a person in early childhood can have a lifetime impact. Research on adverse childhood experiences underscores the importance of addressing and preventing the effect of early adversity on children and families. Examples of early adversity include child abuse and neglect, exposure to violence, and family economic hardship. These experiences can lead to a toxic stress response.

What is “toxic stress”?

A toxic stress Visit disclaimer page response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without enough adult support. Children are unable to effectively manage this type of stress by themselves. As a result, the stress response system is activated for a prolonged amount of time. This can lead to permanent changes in the development of the brain causing psychological and physical damage.

Appropriate support and intervention can help in returning the stress response system back to normal. Support from parents and/or other concerned caregivers is necessary for children to learn how to respond to stress in a physically and emotionally healthy way.

Why does early adversity matter?

Early adversity can lead to a variety of short- and long-term negative health effects. It can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmen­tal delays and other problems. Adults with more ad­verse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

ACF’s Response and Projects Related to Early Adversity

At ACF, our focus is on the most vulnerable children and families. We are using research on early adversity to inform the approaches taken in ACF programs.

Additional ACF ResourcesTypes of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) infographic

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