What are they and how do they save lives?

It all begins with children’s brain development, which is most rapid in the ages of one to three. High stress in children’s environments during this period can alter that development. The brain continues to create new connections throughout childhood and is not considered to be mature until around age twenty-three to twenty-four. We know that we can still develop new neural connections even into old age, but the most crucial and rapid maturation is during early childhood. So how do early childhood experiences influence or actually alter that brain development?

Research has shown that children who are exposed to adverse experiences have a significantly more physical health problems when they reach adulthood. Higher incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, heart and lung diseases, suicide, cancer, anxiety and depression are listed for adults who report having had adverse childhood experiences. So what is the link between what happens to children and adult health?

Think about what it would be like to live in a jungle inhabited by dangerous creatures. To avoid the dangers would require being constantly alert to those dangers. That alertness, that fight-or-flight state would force the body to emit adrenalin and cortisol, two chemicals that provide muscles with the energy needed to react immediately to perceived danger. Over time that flood of chemicals takes its toll on the body and brain. This is especially crucial in young children because those chemicals actually alter and shape the brain structure as it develops. That altered brain will handicap the child as it struggles to learn how to take in and process information. That becomes a major handicap in mastering the demands of social interactions and of school. 

Children who have suffered from adverse experiences early in life have significantly more difficulty staying focused in class as their brains continue to scan for danger. They are more frequently identified as hyperactive as they are in constant motion to stay ready to flee from danger. They are more volatile when challenged because they are always in a protective stance. Soldiers who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder react in this way because even as adults their brains have been reprogrammed by the constant exposure to danger. We can, therefore, consider these children as having developed their own PTSD. 

Safe, Stable, Nurturing Adult-Child Relationships

The same research that told us how living in a constant alert state can alter children’s brains has also told us what children need in order to grow emotionally. Most critically they need and adult in their lives that they can depend on to be there for them, to help them navigate their jungle and to keep them safe. Of course, it is best if that adult is a parent, but that can’t always be possible. All parents aren’t equipped to be there for their children, so a friend, a coach, a teacher, a neighbor, a relative…, somebody needs to step in who can be that go-to person for the child.


The adult must protect the child and help the child know that the adult will do anything to prevent harm. That protection can be in the form of intervening on the child’s behalf by taking the child out of a volatile situation. “How about we go for a walk. Mom needs some space right now.” It can also be in the form of helping a parent or caretaker learn new parenting strategies. The bottom line is to protect the child from those brain altering adverse experiences. 

It is important to understand that protecting children does not mean preventing children from experiencing adversity. Children will often be frustrated as they struggle to master skills, and it does them no favor to prevent all frustration. Children need to learn rules and boundaries, even when they don’t want to be contained by them. Learning self-regulation can be frustrating, but frustrating isn’t the same as experiencing chronic fear. Protecting children means guiding them to a solution that helps them master the problem on their own. 


The adult needs to be supportive with an “I’m-here-for-you” message. Children need an adult they can depend on to help them solve problems, a person from whom they can safely ask for that help. And support doesn’t mean for the adult to take over the problem and solve it for the child. The best support requires guiding the child to solve the problem.  


Now, what kind of protection and emotional nourishment does this adult need to provide? Above all, this adult needs to care. This adult needs to make that loving emotional connection that all children need. This adult must convey the message: “I care about you and want what’s best for you.” That is the constant message all children need.

Helping all children develop healthy brains by being a safe, stable, nurturing adult mitigates stress so it does not become toxic and helps children grow to become emotionally and physically healthy adults.