For very young children, growing up in a chronically stressful situation can lead to difficulties in school and poor health later in life, new research suggests. To offset these by-products of “toxic stress” in the most at-risk children, Jack Shonkoff of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) says it’s important to help build the capabilities of parents and caregivers, the most important influences in these children’s lives.
In an interview on WGBH’s “Innovation Hub” on January 31, 2014, Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at HSPH, discussed the “wear-and-tear” effect of chronic stress on the body—how it can accelerate aging, lead to disease, and disrupt brain development. In young children, much of the delicate brain circuitry develops between ages 3 and 5, so “not doing anything before age 4 for children at greatest risk [from chronic stress] is a huge mistake that we pay a tremendous price for later,” said Shonkoff. Helping boost positive, predictable interactions between children and their caregivers is key, he said.