A young child close up

As we learned in our June Mental Health Moment segment, adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can result in toxic levels of stress, which can harm our physical and mental health later in life. This month, we focus on helping children to build healthy brains to ensure a healthy adulthood. The same way we build a strong foundation to ensure that a building lasts, we can promote brain architecture that supports healthy functioning for years to come.

Brains are Built Over Time

As the Harvard Center on the Developing Child asserts, “Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.” A child’s first few years are a time when their basic brain functioning is developing. If very young children experience toxic stress, their brain can develop a weaker foundation for the changes they go through later. Therefore, the earlier positive interventions occur, the better the outcome for the individual as an adult. For instance, one of the most formative interventions for infants is the experience of serve and return.

Serve and Return

When a baby cries, a caring adult will often pick them up and offer eye contact, as well as a reassuring word or sound. Baby throws a toy, and the adult responds with, “Uh oh!” This back and forth, much like a game of tennis or ping-pong, helps neural connections grow in the child’s brain which contribute to cognitive, emotional, and social skills. If a child asks for attention and the adult cannot or will not engage, the stress hormone cortisol is released into the child’s system. When this happens repeatedly, we describe that stress as toxic, as it has lasting impacts on physical and mental health.

“What we know about children is that their developing brains, first and foremost, seek safety and control.”

Marilyn G. Stein, MEd, CAAP

Early Intervention is Key

The earlier we can intervene on behalf of children experiencing toxic stress, whether due to abuse, neglect, or other household challenges such as divorce, the more effective our interventions are. Infants and toddlers can benefit from programs such as Nurse-Family Partnership, where nurse educators visit first-time moms in their homes. Social & emotional learning (SEL) programs in schools teach communications skills and self-regulation. And the entire family benefits when parents and other caregivers have access to medical, mental health, and addiction services.

There is Life After Trauma

Early intervention is ideal, but in real life many reach their teen or adult years with the effects of toxic stress still present. Mental illnesses and addiction disorders are common for those with childhood trauma, but treatment and recovery services can be extremely effective at alleviating symptoms. Evidence-based treatments target issues such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and opioid use disorder with excellent results.

There is no right way to heal after traumatic experiences early in life. Grieving the loss of a perfect childhood is often important, and finding a therapist, support group, or healthcare provider who’s right for you may take some time. The healing process, however, is worth the time and effort required. Everyone deserves a life free of the impacts of trauma, and the ease that comes with personal growth.

About the Expert

Marilyn G. Stein has short wavy hair with some sparkles in it, and is wearing a yellow shirt with a colorful necklace. She is smiling.

Marilyn G. Stein, MEd, CAAP graduated from Millersville University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, going on to serve as a parole officer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for 23 years. During that tenure she earned a Master’s in Education from Penn State University in Training and Development.

Today, as MGS Consulting, Marilyn is in high demand as an instructor, educator, and coach. She develops curriculum and trains extensively on topics spanning addiction,

trauma-informed care, de-escalation, cultural diversity, stigma, and shame. One-on-one clients seek her expertise on everything from empowerment and bariatric transformation to sobriety. Against any backdrop, Marilyn helps people forge their paths through impactful education and acceptance of change, freeing them from today’s barriers and girding them for tomorrow’s.

Marilyn served as Vice President of the Pennsylvania Certification Board of Directors, holds a Certified Allied Addiction certification with a Criminal Justice specialty, and is a Certified TREM (Trauma, Recovery and Empowerment Model) trainer. She is the author of two books: DUI Countermeasures and Motivational Interviewing for Change Agents, and a founder of Highway Safety Central, a breakthrough program designed to eliminate substance use and driving.

Marilyn facilitates a domestic violence batterers intervention group for Lancaster County Courts and has taught an addiction course for the School of Social Work at Millersville University. She travels extensively for work but calls Lancaster, Pennsylvania home.

This post was originally published by WGAL TV 8 on www.wgal.com and sponsored by Donegal Insurance Group as part of the Mental Health Moment campaign. We thank WGAL TV 8 and Donegal Insurance Group for their support of prevention and mental wellbeing in our region.