April is national child abuse prevention month

Roxie Karelis
The Refuge Network

Children are our future; we all have a stake in the next generation. The future prosperity of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation.

When a society invests wisely in children’s development — socially, emotionally and cognitively — the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship.

What does development, and specifically, brain development, have to do with ending child abuse? Plenty.

Science tells us that the experiences children have early in life actually build the architecture of their brains. Brains are built over time, just like houses. And just as a well-built house requires a strong foundation, our children’s brains also need a strong foundation for all of the development that comes after. Experiences of child abuse and neglect damage this foundation, harm brain development and diminish our community’s future.

Science also tells us that certain environments produce “toxic stress” — or chronic conditions such as extreme poverty and abusive situations — that can compromise the brain’s architecture and destabilize the foundation, derailing future development.

Fortunately, the research also tells us what types of environments ensure healthy brain development, what types of environments produce toxic stress and what communities and ordinary citizens can do to ensure that all children have the solid foundations they need for healthy development.

First, while it’s vitally important to provide children with opportunities to develop their cognitive abilities, we must pay equal attention to their social and emotional abilities. That’s because all of the developmental domains work together, each affecting and affected by the other.

This development happens in an environment of relationships, where children have the opportunity to develop interactions with caregivers in a “serve and return” fashion, much like a game of tennis.

When an infant or child reaches out for interaction with a caregiver and that caregiver responds consistently and appropriately, critical neural pathways in children’s brains are built. Healthy pathways are not built in the brains of children who are living in environments of abuse and neglect, which has a negative impact on children’s development – in the short and long term.

Secondly, children need environments free of toxic stress, or the kind of chronic, serious stress caused by experiences such as violence, abuse or neglect.

This toxic stress literally damages children’s brains by releasing chemicals in the brain that stunt cell growth. This even impairs their physical health because children develop an exaggerated stress response that weakens their defense system against later illness, from heart disease to diabetes to depression.

Trying to change behavior or build new skills of brains not wired properly when they were first formed requires more work and is less effective.

Foster care, remedial education, clinical treatment, criminal justice and other professional interventions are more costly and produce less desirable outcomes than investing in the kinds of programs that prevent child abuse and neglect.

In order to support healthy development in all children, we need to insure there are programs to protect children from exposure to toxic stress.

One way to do this is by interrupting the cycle of family violence. For 28 years, The Refuge Network has worked with families experiencing the conditions that cause toxic stress, such as extreme poverty, parental mental health and chemical dependency concerns and family violence.

Our advocates help families build the supports they need to buffer this toxic stress, increasing the likelihood of healthy outcomes for children.

Be aware, get involved and we can create communities in which all children will prosper and have bright futures to look forward to.