“At that critical stage, if children don’t have that sense of security in the world, it’s very difficult to remediate and provide that back."
ACEs impact on brain development
Most brain development happens in the first few years of a child’s life. Genes provide the brain’s basic blueprint, but experiences shape the brain architecture and establish the foundation for future learning, health and behavior.
Learning to cope with stress is an important part of a child’s development. When we are threatened, our bodies help us respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive adult relationships, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of a healthy response system.
Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support. The prolonged activation of the stress response systems disrupts the development of the brain and other organs and increases the risk for stress-related diseases and cognitive impairment. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression.
The ACE Pyramid
The ACE pyramid gives a framework for how adverse childhood experiences impact the life trajectory from birth to death. The diagram helps explain the origins of risk factors that lead to poor health outcomes by connecting adverse experiences to social, emotional and cognitive impairment that leads to the adoption of health-risk behaviors. As the shape of the pyramid suggests, adverse childhood experiences do not guarantee bad outcomes but they greatly increase the odds of struggle.
Serve and return
A child’s relationship with his or her parents or caregivers plays a huge role in development through a process called “serve and return.” Like in games such as tennis and volleyball, young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling and facial expressions and adults respond by doing the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back. If a child has a parent who is depressed, for example, that parent might not respond in a way that supports healthy development.
Early development concepts
This three-part video series developed by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explain how early experiences impact development.