Dysfunctional childhood experiences can have a negative impact on a developing brain. It is every parent or guardian’s duty to produce a well-rounded and educated adult that can sufficiently participate in a productive society. An individual who experiences early childhood trauma is more susceptible to develop poor executing functioning, mood disorders, and poor decision making skills. To successfully manage and handle our society’s future, it is vital that we recognize as well as address the problems before they begin to worsen.
One of the most potential risk factors for psychopathology is childhood adversity.
Childhood adversity can be described as a host of experiences that cause chronic and toxic stress to a developing brain. These adverse experiences may vary from exposure to traumatic circumstances in the environment, natural disasters, exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty, or neglect. Nearly 64% of youth in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood event (Moses, Villodas & Villodas, 2019). Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are associated with long-term negative health issues including an increased risk of mental health problems and diagnoses such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression (Atzl, Narayan, Rivera, & Lieberman, 2019).
Ethnic and racial minorities are said to experience a disproportionately higher rate of childhood adverse experiences than any other racial group (Moses et al., 2019). Multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies have uncovered that exposure to early childhood adverse experiences is a powerful predictor of poor health throughout one’s life course.
Childhood adversity is a distal risk factor that leads to proximal risk factors such as low educational attainment, lower occupational position and income, and an increased risk of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors that are known to be damaging to health. In recent years, much research has accumulated to support the idea that childhood adverse experiences lead to an increased risk for disease later in life (McCrory, Dooley, & Layte 2014).
From the prenatal stage to the beginning of childhood, the quality of the environment and the relationships of which a child is brought in, can have a remarkable impact on biopsychosocial (biological, psychological, and social) development in children throughout their lifespan. Pregnancy is a transformative period in which a mother undergoes extensive change and reorganization. The prenatal period is characterized by distinctive stressors associated with the biological, emotional, cognitive, and hormonal changes of the process of pregnancy (Atzl et al., 2019). These stressors may be worsened by the increased prominence of adverse childhood experiences which may likely be a trigger to mental health symptoms. Research has demonstrated that higher levels of cortisol present in the amniotic fluid can impact cognitive development (Bergman, Sakar, O’connor, Modi & Glover, 2007). A prospective longitudinal study supported this claim by examining 35 women throughout the course of their pregnancy and viewed the effects of anxiety on their offspring. Using a structural MRI scan, researchers found a reduction in grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, the premotor cortex, as well as the medial and lateral temporal cortex. Grey matter is a major component of the central nervous system that contains most of the brain’s cell bodies and is where sensory perception such as hearing, seeing, and emotion take place. An altered gray matter density shown in prenatal anxiety may increase the likelihood of the offspring to become more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders (Buss, Davis, Muftuler, Head & Sandman, 2010).
In other words, research suggests that the health of a mother throughout pregnancy is crucial to the development of a growing fetus. Mental health issues experienced by the mother such as anxiety may increase a child’s susceptibility to suffer long-term anxiety in their cognitive development.
Through the first few years of childhood, the brain undergoes its most vital and rapid development and these early experiences are said to determine whether the architecture is weak or strong. During these early sensitive periods of development, cognitive and emotional development is shaped by dependable interactions with adults, while chronic adversity can disrupt normal brain development. To understand the effects of early behavioral and brain development, researchers conducted a study on the brain activity of institutionalized children who were 8 years of age (Vanderwert, Marshall, Nelson, Zeanah, & Fox, 2010). When compared to a sample of children who were never institutionalized, the results showed that children who were institutionalized with conditions of severe neglect, trauma, and or abuse showed a dramatic decrease in brain activity than the expected levels. Furthermore, the profile of the brain activity of children who were institutionalized showed similar results in studies that examined electroencephalogram (EEG) power in children who were impoverished, diagnosed with ADHD, and those who experienced intrauterine stress (Vanderwert et al., 2010).
Psychosocial deprivation has been shown to have overwhelming effects on brain activity in a young child. Reports have demonstrated that children who have experienced institutional care, showed a greater EEG power in the theta band and a decreased power in the alpha and beta bands. With that being said, higher frequencies in alpha and beta bands have been associated with improved arousal in humans, cognitive performance and attention (Vanderwert et al., 2010).
Despite a most recent interest in childhood adverse experiences, there has been limited research on ethnic and racial differences among children. Prior research has been shown to suggest that socioeconomic status can increase the prevalence of ACEs. A study that examined over 1,500 participants ranging from the ages 16-50 years old, were coded into black, white, hispanic, and other racial groups. Ten dichotomous indicators of childhood adversities such as maltreatment, homelessness, household dysfunction, and parental absence were used to create a conglomerate ACE score. When evaluating these ACE scores, white children were more likely than black and hispanic children to report any household dysfunction and were more likely than black children to report instances of abuse or neglect (Mersky & Janczewski, 2017). Ethnic racial identity or ERI, is developing a sense of belonging or affirmation to one’s ethnic or racial group. ERI serves a protective role in that many children who identity with vulnerable racial groups may feel as though they experience an abundance of adversities in comparison to other racial groups. Black adolescents, particularly those who experienced at-risk environments, experience multiple barriers, a lack of resources, high feelings of hopelessness about their futures, and lower educational and occupational attainment than any other racial group.
Given the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences, it is plausible to suggest that these barriers could diminish future success among black youth rather than white youth. Maintaining a strong ethnic racial identity is an important cultural specific factor in increasing mental and physical health, occupational functioning, education, self-efficacy and motivation towards achieving success in multiple domains despite the barriers among black children.
Understanding and recognizing the risks and protective factors, proven strategies, and associated outcomes can be vital in preventing childhood adverse experiences. Resilience is a dynamic ability to adapt to adversity despite any given condition. Resilience factors can vary from child to child and can involve a combination of internal and external factors. Internally, resilience involves thoughts, behaviors, and actions that anyone can learn to develop. Resilience can be strengthened by having stable, safe, and nurturing relationships within your family and the outside world. Children with resilience have been linked to acquiring a higher perception of competence, a positive self-concept, and easy temperament (Franke, 2014). Implementing an intervention program that targets the development of ethnic racial identity among minority may aim to promote positive youth development (Moses et al., 2019). The results from a present study suggest that affirmation and a belonging to one’s own racial group is a protective factor against the negative effects on the accumulation of adverse childhood experiences in black youth. ERI could potentially produce positive outcomes such as less negative occupational expectations, higher social engagement, and positive educational expectations (Moses et., 2019).
Childhood adversity is a number of experiences that cause traumatic stress on a developing brain. Early adverse childhood experiences can have a tremendous impact on future lifelong health and it can come in many forms from prenatal adversity, childhood neglect, and socioeconomic status. Pregnancy is a period is characterized by distinctive stressors that are associated with biological, emotional, cognitive, and hormonal changes in pregnancy. These stressors may worsen and increase the likelihood of the offspring acquiring a mental health diagnoses. Furthermore, higher levels of cortisol present in the amniotic fluid can also impact cognitive development. The brain undergoes rapid development throughout the first few years of childhood whereas cognitive and emotional development is shaped by dependable interactions with adults. During this sensitive period, children who experienced adversity such as neglect and trauma showed showed a dramatic decrease in brain activity than the expected levels and showed similar results in studies that examined EEG power in children who were diagnosed with ADHD and impoverished. Recent research has suggested that socioeconomic status can increase the prevalence of ACEs. Black youth are said to experience a disproportionately higher rate of childhood adverse experiences than any other racial group. Moreover, black adolescents experience multiple barriers including high feelings of hopelessness about their futures, and lower educational and occupational attainment than any other racial group.
Prevention factors such as understanding and recognizing the risks and protective factors, increasing resilience by strengthening safe and stable relationships, and affirming to an ethnic or racial group can increase one’s sense of belonging as well as acquiring a positive self-concept, a higher perception of competence and easy temperament (Franke, 2014).
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