What happens in childhood, doesn’t necessarily stay in childhood.  While genes play a big part in how we grow, experience can redirect who we become.    

The human brain is designed to sense, sort out, store up, and act on information from the external and the internal environment.  From our time in the womb, trillions of neurons, the building blocks of our brains, are being formed, and repeated experience is carving out neural pathways (our “wiring”).  By the time we reach the age of two, three-quarters of our brain is already developed and the foundation for our future has been laid.

This is why the first years of our lives are so critical to our overall well-being and success…and why early traumatic experiences are real-life game-changers.

JoAnn Cobb, LICSW, program director for early childhood and family support programs at Child and Family Services, explains that from womb to age three, “toxic stress, which results from ongoing trauma, can change the brain’s architecture.  The increased stress releases higher levels of cortisol into the body, which keeps the child on ‘high alert,’ literally altering the way his brain is wired.  This can impact nearly every aspect of the rest of this child’s life.”

In the prenatal stage, a child who is exposed to toxins such as tobacco, drugs, alcohol, chemicals, viruses or radiation, is at much higher risk for birth defects, learning disabilities and developmental delays.     

In the early childhood years, toxic stress can occur when a child is exposed to severe, chronic trauma, such as on-going abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, and extreme poverty.

Cobb says that the brain is wired through stimulation and experiences; doing something repeatedly makes permanent connections in the brain. When experiences are loving and positive, the brain’s wiring is healthy. But when fear, worry, and pain dominate a child’s experiences, the brain develops differently.

“It’s stimulating part of the brain that’s in your emotional center,” Cobb says.

In fact, the emotional part of the brain can become bigger, whereas the part that’s responsible for cognition and rational thought actually becomes smaller.  “That’s how mental illness really starts,” Cobb says. “Once that child is an adult, it’s the permanent shape of their brain.”

Left unchecked, the devastating effects of chronic early childhood trauma can last long into adulthood.  Cobb points to the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. The study, which includes data on more than 17,000 people, found that victims of abuse and neglect suffer higher rates of everything from depression and substance abuse, to liver disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Through the growing years, the evidence of chronic trauma manifests in different ways. Sometimes children will withdraw or have nightmares; adolescents will often act out dangerously, turning to substance abuse or acting violently themselves. Early trauma can also compromise the immune system; diminish one’s sense of self; and can cause problems later on in life with one’s ability to hold a job, establish relationships, or live independently.

While this creates a sense of urgency regarding early intervention, it is important to know that the brain has the most plasticity in infancy and early childhood, and therefore, the most probability for change.  Early childhood, then, is a window of opportunity to nurture the positive neurons, rewire the negative, and optimize the child’s potential for healthy emotional, physical and social development.  

Cobb concludes:  “Prevention, early intervention, and therapy, are the keys.