Why Does He Do That? How Early Adversity Can Shape Behavior

Published on 
July 8, 2016

What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime.

Pediatricians are growing increasingly alarmed about the dangers of so-called “toxic stress”—chronic activation of a young child’s stress response systems due to repeated, uncontrollable adverse events, which can alter brain chemistry and hurt a child’s ability to thrive.

The brain develops from a combination of information from a genetic blueprint and experiences, both before and after birth. From the prenatal period through the first years of life, the brain undergoes rapid development. As it matures, neurological circuits that support higher-level functions like memory, emotional and behavioral regulation, and language are strengthened through positive reinforcement. But repeated adverse experiences, such as neglect or abuse, increase the likelihood that a child will fall behind developmentally.

“One remarkable aspect of the human brain is that it is actually designed to use experiences to continue its own development,” says Pat Levitt, PhD, Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

While learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy early-child development, it requires stable and supportive relationships with parents, siblings, teachers or caregivers.

“There exists a delicate balance between a child’s inherent constitution or ‘hard wiring’ and the environmental support that allows her or him to achieve well-being in thought, emotion and behavior,” says Brad Peterson, MD, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind (IDM) at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He states that parental influence is tremendously important, providing support at the “leading developmental edge” of the child’s experience.

Peterson, Levitt and Elizabeth Sowell, PhD—all part of the IDM—share the common goal of applying information about social, emotional and cognitive development and the environment to ensure that every child reaches his or her highest potential.

“Every interaction a child has with the world affects the brain, and how the brain is wired and morphs as it changes and adapts to the environment,” echoes Sowell, who is also professor of Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We must learn to help that child improve through the efforts of family, schools and health care resources.”

Read the whole story in the latest edition of ResearCHLA magazine!