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A Pediatrician’s View: The Lifelong Effects of Toxic Stress on Kids

boy covering his face
Hansa Bhargava, MD - Blogs
By Hansa D. Bhargava, MDBoard-certified pediatricianJune 19, 2018

Did something bad happen to you as a kid? Is it still painful?

Whether it’s sickness, divorce, or interactions with the bully in middle school, painful events can be impressed in our memories for life. The human brain tends to process negative events more deeply, so, sadly, we often carry these for life.

What if this memory was of your mom or dad being torn away from you? And you being put in a warehouse with other kids who had the same thing happen to them. Would that impact the rest of your life?

During childhood, the brain undergoes critical development. There is incredible growth of language, reading, and physical skills. There is also emotional growth which leads to the building of resilience and the capacity to deal with life’s challenges. Toxic stress or a toxic event can be a shock to this vulnerable brain – and this shock can cascade into all kinds of lifelong health effects.

As you may know, 658 children were separated from their parents over the last two weeks. Children separated from their parents can experience toxic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. That puts them  at risk for a number of health issues including sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, chronic disease, depression and suicide. And here’s something else: these effects can potentially change a child’s DNA, as well as the structure of the brain. Acute or recurrent toxic stress can literally change children to the core, affecting how their body and brain function for the rest of their lives.

Keeping families together can help prevent this from happening. Parental support provides a buffer that helps children who are still maturing deal with the stress around them. It helps make the stress less toxic, and less likely to do permanent harm.

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other organizations, has taken such a strong stance on what is happening right now at the border.

Separating  young children from their parents is like throwing a big rock into the pond of their developing brain. The ripple effect can be with them forever.

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About the Author
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Hansa Bhargava, MD, is a medical editor and WebMD's expert pediatrician. She oversees the team of medical experts responsible for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of the pediatric content on the site.

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