What if We Could Prevent Toxic Stress?
We were gratified to read Joe Reardon’s Guest Commentary in the May 17 issue of The Kansas City Star. He was pointing out the need for increased awareness of the impact of adverse childhood experiences, frequently referred to as ACEs, and the focus of Resilient KC, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Resilient KC effort is focused on bringing awareness to the problem of ACEs, including: being neglected, and/or emotionally and/or physically abused by adults; experiencing a family divorce, being a witness to domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse; and living in poverty, among others.
Resilient KC is also addressing the impact of such experiences on children and, ultimately, on adults who have experienced adversity as children. We are, as a community and as a nation, devoting more and more much-needed efforts to repairing the damage caused to children by the toxic stress of these adverse experiences mentioned above. But it seems that we are spending more time and resources in picking up the pieces and trying to repair children and adults who have been broken by adverse childhood experiences, but we also need to work to prevent the breakage in the first place.
So it bears discussing: Is it possible to lower the risk of the damage of adverse experiences in children’s lives, as well as prevent the damage caused by the toxic stress that these adverse childhood experiences create?
We are happy to report that the answer to both is yes. And we are happy that Kansas City is on the forefront of the movement that is doing just that. It’s called Behavior Checker®, an groundbreaking initiative of the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit organization. Here’s how.
First, some toxic stress facts: When stress becomes toxic for young children, their brain development is adversely affected. The areas of the brain that are damaged by this toxic stress are the pre-frontal cortex, the pleasure center, and the fear center. Retarding growth in the prefrontal cortex reduces the ability to make good decisions and to self-regulate, essential skills for school success. The damage to the pleasure center results in constant seeking of pleasure and can drive obesity, early sexuality, and drug use. Damage to the fear center results in hyper-vigilance, trust, and being suspicious of others.
Look how that plays out in the adult world where we see bad decisions being made, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of trust and inability to become a functioning adult member of the workforce. We now know how to stop the erosion of children’s brains by preventing stress from becoming toxic, no matter how many “ACE’S” a child experiences.
How do we do that?
Neuroscience and behavioral science research demonstrates that teaching parents and caregivers how to think and act in consistently caring, supportive, and protective ways can result in preventing many of the long-term behavioral, learning and health problems we are seeing today from the toxic stress response triggered by adverse childhood experiences. That is, in essence, one of the important “good news” conclusions of Joe Reardon’s story about the children who were adopted into a loving and caring family. The caring, supportive and protective relationships, that the children cited in his story experienced, changed the trajectory of the children’s future…and the rest, as they say, is history.
As this example and scientific evidence demonstrates, building consistently caring, supportive, and protective relationships can reverse the current statistic, for example, that 15 percent of babies are hit by their caregivers before their first birthday, and that 45 percent of all children experience non-normative trauma before age of 5, much of it at the hand of parents and caregivers in the name of “discipline”.
We founded the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation with the mission of promoting caring, supportive and protective relationships to prevent toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences. The Foundation’s signature initiative, Behavior Checker, is piloting the training and tools to integrate healthy parenting into primary care pediatric clinics and early learning centers across our city, helping those who are charged with promoting positive learning, health and behavior outcomes, support the parents and caregivers of these children in their care. We proudly report that on June 1st, Kansas City will be in the national spotlight as we present our Behavior Checker pilot research study results at the Society for Prevention Research 25th Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.
We are buoyed by our community’s will to act on this knowledge to lower the risk and prevent the damage caused by toxic stress for this generation of children and for generations to come. We know, at the most fundamental level, parenting is healthcare.
Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Unell are the co-founders of the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, and the co-authors of Discipline with Love and Limits.