Early Education

How trauma and stress affect a child’s brain development

The Trump administration’s child separation policy could have long-term consequences for migrant children taken from their parents

Pediatricians and child development experts are concerned about the long-term effects that the Trump Administration’s family separation policy could have on migrant children who are separated from their parents. This separation can cause “toxic stress” that impedes the brain’s development, which could lead to long-term mental health and physical health issues.

Research shows that when children are exposed to negative experiences like neglect, mental illness in the household, trauma or abuse at a young age, the brain’s ability to build circuits that allow different regions of the brain to communicate and process information can be impeded. If those circuits are weak, the development of executive function needed to regulate behavioral control, impulse control, which allow children to focus and follow directions, can be hindered.

Although negative life experiences and stress can be present in homes at all income levels, experts say extra stressors like food and housing insecurity and violence in the community can greatly impact development and are often present to a greater degree in low-income homes. Children who live in poverty are especially vulnerable because their families frequently face daily stressors, said Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. “[T]hat stress interferes with a parent’s ability to be consistently responsive to their children and to provide a pretty predictable, well-regulated, relatively low stress environment day by day,” Shonkoff said. Research shows socio-emotional development, language development, and brain structure can be impacted by the effects of poverty.

These changes are so pronounced, it’s even possible to see them on brain scans. A 2015 study that examined the brains of 1,099 children and young adults found those who came from higher-income homes and had parents with higher educational attainment had larger surface areas in their brain, especially in the areas that control language and executive functioning, than their peers who were poorer and had less educated parents.

This story about how trauma and stress affect a child’s brain development was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Video graphic created by Sharon Lurye

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Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared… See Archive

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