Children in orphanages, in poor quality day care centers, children of teenagers or children with one or two parents incarcerated often experience neglect, lack of stimuli, adversity and even abuse. Studies have shown that this kind of adversity, especially if it takes place during the first two years of life,
can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head can. And after the age of two, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years. … For a long time, social science has known of correlations between childhood turmoil and all sorts of adult maladies that carry massive social and financial costs—mental illness, addiction, tendencies toward violence. … [Recent] science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. … [A]dversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA. (source)
Early childhood adversity such as neglect, abuse or the stress produced by extreme poverty weakens and distorts the development of the brain and sets the body’s hormonal stress function on permanent high alert.
Here are some examples of the ways in which early childhood adversity affects the brain in a lasting manner:
[A] baby who endures prolonged abuse or neglect is likely to end up with an enlarged amygdala: a part of the brain that helps generate the fear response. Some of the earliest and most important research establishing this process dates to the 1950s, when investigators observed that rats were better at solving problems if they got more nurturing at very young ages. … Subsequent research showed that persistent childhood stress also leads to significant physical problems, such as far higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. … Early adversity … can interfere with planning ability, cognitive flexibility, problems with memory, and all of those will correlate with diminished IQ. … One 2010 paper from Psychological Medicine concluded that “childhood adversities”—a category that includes abusive parenting and economic hardship—were associated with about one in five cases of “severely impairing” mental disorders and about one in four anxiety disorders in adulthood. (source)
So there is evidence of a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and problems that occur later in life. Notwithstanding the fact that some affected children end up OK and that others may benefit from later interventions, the cited effects are often tenacious in later life. That means that preventing them requires concentrated action during those crucial first two years. Providing very young children with stable, responsive and nurturing relationships in the family, in school and in the neighborhood can prevent or reverse the effect of early childhood adversity, stress and neglect.
And the interesting part from our point of view is that the effects of early adversity are not limited to mental disorders and crime. These effects cause and perpetuate poverty. Hormonal and brain functions that are distorted by adversity and stress result in learning difficulties:
Children who fail to develop coping mechanisms struggle from the earliest days in school, because even the slightest provocations or setbacks destroy their focus and attention. They can’t sit still and read. They have trouble standing in line. They lash out at classmates or teachers. And these struggles, naturally, lead to other problems that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. All of this is to say that the science of early childhood may play a significant role in the dominant political question of our time: rising inequality. (source)
That means that anti-poverty measures should focus on very young children. Such measures have lifelong benefits for learning, behavior and health. Not only are such early measures more effective in the struggle against poverty than attempts to reverse damage later in life – they are probably also less costly.
More posts in this series are here.