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.
- The Buffering Toxic Stress Consortium, a set of six cooperative agreements, is evaluating promising parenting interventions in Early Head Start settings. If we know what parents can do to help their children in these difficult situations, we can help improve outcomes for the most vulnerable infants and toddlers.
- Head Start University Partnerships: Dual-Generation Approaches grantees will examine the role that Head Start can play in promoting family well-being, including health, safety, financial security, and school readiness. These projects will identify and evaluate dual-generation approaches that target parents and children simultaneously, to support both parent well-being and children’s school readiness.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway:
- Toxic Stress and Self-Regulation Reports:
- Grant: Permanency Innovations Initiative (PII) Approach to Building Implementation and Evaluation Capacity in Child Welfare
- Report on adverse childhood experiences in the child welfare population: National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW), No. 20: Adverse Child Experiences in NSCAW
- Brief: Services for Families of Infants and Toddlers Experiencing Trauma from the Network of Infant Toddler Researchers
- News on Early Adversity Featuring ACF: