The issue ensuring that young children have safe, secure environments in which to grow, learn, and develop healthy brains and bodies is not only good for the children themselves but also builds a strong foundation for a thriving, prosperous society. Science shows that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. Unfortunately, many young children are exposed to such circumstances. While some of these experiences are one-time events and others may reoccur or persist over time, all of them have the potential to affect how children learn, solve problems, and relate to others.
All children experience fears during childhood, including fear of the dark, monsters, and strangers. These fears are normal aspects of development and are temporary in nature. In contrast, threatening circumstances that persistently elicit fear and anxiety predict significant risk for adverse long-term outcomes from which children do not recover easily. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; significant maltreatment of one parent by the other; and the persistent threat of violence in the community are examples of such threatening circumstances in a child’s environment.
Studies show that experiences like abuse and exposure to violence can cause fear and chronic anxiety in children and that these states trigger extreme, prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system. In studies with animals, this type of chronic activation of the stress system has been shown to disrupt the efficiency of brain circuitry and lead to both immediate and long-term physical and psychological problems. This is especially true when stress-system overload occurs during sensitive periods of brain development. While much of the evidence for the effects of stress on the development of brain architecture comes from animal studies, strong similarities in the processes of brain development across species indicate that experiences of persistent fear and chronic anxiety likely exert similarly adverse impacts on the developing brain in humans. Thus, stress-system overload can significantly diminish a child’s ability to learn and engage in typical social interactions across the lifespan.
Many policymakers, educators, and even medical professionals are unaware of the potentially significant, long-term risks of exposure to fear-provoking circumstances in children and lack information about the prevalence of these situations in their communities. Critically, 1 in every 7 children, and nearly 1 out of every 40 infants, in the United States experience some form of maltreatment, including chronic neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.1,2 Child maltreatment has been shown to occur most often in families that face excessive levels of stress, such as that associated with community violence, parental drug abuse, or significant social isolation.3 Research also tells us that nearly half of children living in poverty witness violence, or are indirectly victims of violence.1 Clearly, for children in these circumstances, the frequent and repetitive threats around them science shows that exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. create the potential for heightened fear and chronic anxiety.
Behavioural neuroscience research in animals tells us that serious, fear-triggering experiences elicit physiological responses that affect the architecture of the brain as it is developing. These experiences cause changes in brain activity and have been shown to have long-term, adverse consequences for learning, behaviour, and health. Studies show that solutions for children are available through programs that effectively prevent specific types of fear-eliciting events, such as physical or sexual abuse. The timely implementation of such interventions can pre- vent and treat the harmful effects of exposure to extreme, fear-eliciting circumstances. In addition to these preventive measures, there also are effective treatments for children experiencing high levels of anxiety or chronic fear that