“There are children who like dandelions can thrive almost in any environment…They do well even in conditions of stress and adversity. There are other children who are like orchids, who are extremely sensitive…Under the right nurturing conditions they thrive…But under conditions of adversity…they wilt and they don’t do well.”
-Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, Division of Developmental Medicine, UCSF [1A]
In the wake of World War II, 300 children who had survived the Holocaust were brought to an English estate for rehabilitation . Children who had been torn from their parents’ arms; children who had been imprisoned, beaten, and starved; children who had witnessed murder and atrocities were taught to be human again.
In our inner cities, single mothers struggle to raise children in poverty. Children under the age of ten are killed in drive-by shootings. Children already victimized are further abused in foster care, their parents lost to addiction.
How do we survive tragedy and evil? Why are some broken by circumstances, while others endure?
“Toxic stress is really the kind of stress experienced by a child that is overwhelming, that the child cannot cope with, with his or her own behavior and physiology.”
-Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, Division of Developmental Medicine, UCSF [1B]
A landmark study called the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) tracked 17,500 adults who had experienced childhood stress in any of 10 categories [1C]. ACES documented a clear link between adversity and poor health outcomes.
Those with an ACES score of 4 or more were at dramatically increased risk for 7 of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States. Stress, in other words, is the root cause of chronic disease .
Children exposed to toxic stress can develop learning, behavioral, and anger issues. They are more susceptible to mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and later incarceration.
Medicine is on the threshold of developing tests to measure the impact stress has on us [1D].
Cortisol is one indicator. Known as the stress hormone, cortisol interacts with the brain to regulate mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol does this by increasing blood sugar, controlling blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing the sleep cycle.
If we can monitor (and moderate) the stress on children, we can help assure that they lead happier and healthier lives.
[1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D] PBS, “Broken Places”, S1, EP1, https://www.pbs.org/show/broken-places/ .
 PBS, “The Windermere Children”, https://www.pbs.org/video/the-windermere-children-xcqszh/ .
 PBS, “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words”, https://www.pbs.org/video/the-windermere-children-in-their-own-words-ptazhd/ .
 National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “The significance of early childhood adversity” by Clyde Hertzman MD, March 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3680281/.
This series will conclude next week.
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