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The detrimental impact of childhood stress on the brain

Playgroup WA CEO, David Zarb, discusses why it’s paramount we aim for prevention of problems with young children, rather than waiting to address problems later, when it’s often too late.


Long before I became involved in playgroups and supporting families with young children, I worked in child protection. As more and more evidence about the importance of early childhood came out in the last 20 years I decided to focus on prevention.

Yesterday I was reminded why I made the move to focus on the early years, when I got one of those phone calls that you hear about but hope not to get. One of my former social work students rang to let me know that a young person we worked with in the late 1980’s had passed away aged 40. Michael (not his real name) had been living on the streets for many years with a long history of depression. He had been in care and living away from his mother as a child because of her mental illness. Whilst I have long been aware of the statistics on what happens to children in the child protection system after they leave care, this was the first time that I had found out that someone I had worked with had become one of those statistics.

I started wondering about all the other children and families I had worked with over the years. How many were still alive? How many were homeless? How many were in jail? How many had gone on to struggle with their own children? How many now had mental illness and/or drug issues? It’s not pleasant to think about but we have long known that despite our best efforts, the children who we try to protect often end up having a life of, there’s no easy way to say it, misery.

"excessive stress can produce lasting and damaging changes to the brain due to the over production of adrenaline."

As far back as the late 1980’s, a landmark report, ‘Our Homeless Children’, clearly laid out just how badly we were failing the children and young people we as a society were trying to protect; reporting these children who had been in care had higher rates of homelessness, crime and drug issues. I trust things are working better today but I’m not so sure.

The one positive about these morbid meanderings was that it confirmed to me working with young children and their families was the right thing to do. I am in awe of those people who spend their working and personal lives trying to make life better for children, by working in the child protection system. The case workers and foster carers who do this work have enormous strength of character and compassion, and we as a community need to value and recognise their efforts much more than we do.


"there is much more that can be done to support families with young children and that it should be a public and political priority that goes way beyond the cost of child care."

I was reminded recently about one of the relatively new planks of the overwhelming case for investment in early childhood, during a workshop with Dr Stuart Shankar, one of the world’s leading researchers. Over the past decade, Stuart has been researching the impact of stress on the developing brain. His team in Toronto, Canada, has now clearly identified that excessive stress can produce lasting and damaging changes to the brain due to the over production of adrenaline. It has long been known that adrenaline is the body’s natural response to danger. What is new is just how much this plays out in young children. Adrenaline makes people stronger and faster. It is one of nature’s risk management policies for humans but it’s all about survival. Adrenaline doesn’t make you smarter or kinder or calmer, and in large doses it damages all of those capacities. In short modern childhood is overdosing on adrenaline.

If you think about Australia’s Aboriginal children, then Stuart’s work makes a lot of sense. Why is anyone surprised that children and families who continue to endure multiple long term trauma should continue to have difficulties? Issues of separation from family, homelessness, violence, alcohol abuse, chronic illness, poverty and unemployment actually have lasting effects on children that don’t just go away because we make people go to school. We’ve been trying that for decades. We have to address the stressors as well. Let’s all hope that the Closing the Gap strategy does make progress, and in the meantime try to remember that there are reasons why people do the things they do.

Indeed Stuart is firmly of the belief that stress is one of the primary factors in the explosion in childhood development and mental health issues in recent times. We have all read about the increase in childhood behaviour issues such as ADHD and increasing rates of anxiety and depression.

Is childhood more stressful today? Opinions might differ and certainly there have always been children who suffered enormous stress, but if you ask people to compare their own childhoods with the children of today most will say how they spent more time outside, they played more, they did less homework, they didn’t have as many after school activities, they spent more time with the neighbours, they saw their cousins and aunties and uncles all the time. These observations are supported by research into what today’s children and parents do. Quite simply, everyone is busier for a lot of different reasons. There are more cars and more traffic, we work longer. We spend less time preparing and eating meals together and more time watching cooking programmes. We also have more money and more things to spend it on.

I don’t know whether things would have turned out differently for Michael if his early life was less stressful. I’ll never know whether there was anything that could have been done differently to support his mother so that he could have stayed with her, rather than suffering the trauma of having to live in the care system. What I do know that there are a lot of little choices we make that can impact our children’s lives, even if it’s as simple as making sure we take time to play and enjoy and talk. I also know that there is much more that can be done to support families with young children and that it should be a public and political priority that goes way beyond the cost of child care.

CEO Playgroup WA