The vast majority of parents – regardless of their income, education or upbringing – want the best for their children. I know that I never imagined the lengths I would go through for another human being until I held a tiny baby in my arms.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement explaining exactly what parents can do to ensure their children’s health and development: avoid toxic stress.
(Before we go on, a quick word about policy statements: Similar to systematic reviews, they involved a panel of experts – in this case pediatricians – who review the body of evidence on a given topic and make a recommendation based on the available research. So they’re a big deal.)
The statement explains that personal experiences and environmental factors that activate the physiological stress response for prolonged periods of time disrupt children’s brain circuitry and can have an impact on physiology, behavior and health even decades later. Essentially, too many or too long stressful experiences is bad for kids. The statement is referring to major, lasting problems: verbal abuse in the home, a chronic lack of affection for children, physical threats to family members, an addiction problem.
The statement builds on the research of Cornell faculty member Gary Evans, an environmental psychologist who studies the impact of the physical environment and poverty on children. Evans research has shown that growing up in an environment of poverty can lead to health problems.
In another study, Evans looked at the impact of noisy environments on children’s development.
“People tend to think of noise in terms of how it impacts hearing,” he explained. “But if you are subjected to noise, you’re likely to have elevated blood pressure and elevated stress hormones, and those have real implications for your health. Children who grow up in noisy environments are more likely to have deficits in reading because if you tune out noise in general, you also tune out speech. And language is a fundamental building block for learning to read.”
A third study, published in the journal Pediatrics this month, found children who undergo chronic stress have larger gains in their Body Mass Index, suggesting chronic stress leads to weight gain.
The statement makes the arguments that pediatricians – who hold some responsibility for ensuring children’s health – should do more to ensure kids are growing up in health environments. This could mean developmental screenings, connecting families with social services, and supporting community programs that provide positive environments for children.
You can read more about the policy statement and its implications in this New York Times opinion column. And then take the time to make sure the children in your life – whether they’re your own kids, other relatives or neighbors – feel a little more secure and loved. It can go a long way to making a difference in the rest of their lives.