The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity

Jack Shonkoff from Harvard talks about Toxic Stress and Early Child Development


Early Child Development

(some of my notes on Dr Bruce Perry’s talk “The First Three years”)
All parts of the Brain develop in a use dependant way
The brain has many parts, some for learning languages, morality, values. We have a social engine in our brain. We are literally made for interactions with others, the same way that we have arms and legs to eat food and legs to walk, we have a our capability to relate to others as our primary function for survival. Just like food helps our ability to move, relationships to others feeds who we are.


Social Cultural Evolution.

100,000 years ago we did not know how to read or write, we probably didnt speak either. We now read and write, we use language to communicate effectively, we have changed our family structure from the village life where everyone is helps in child rearing to the nuclear family. All of these changes form part of our social cultural evolution.

We have passed on some social traits from generation to generation and we have stopped passing on others, depending on the culture we grew up in you were either more or less progressive in what was handed down by your parents and your grandparents.
Violent conflict resolution is an example of something harmful that we have passed on to our children without really wanting to do it. When we ask parents if they had a choice would they have taught their children to resolve conflict using violence or peaceful methods, most parents would say no !


We have some gifts that we have not been using to the utmost of their potential.

The relationships that we form, our capacity to form relationships within big groups, making groups, living peacefully within groups, being in a tribe. Without a group we will not have been able to survive and thrive as a species. The person is not a person without a tribe.

The same way that a tree grows branches in orther to spread its seeds, the same way that flowers have evolved to be bright and colourful in order to pass on their seeds our brain has grown and develop to function in a group. Our brain is primed for group setting. When the baby born she is expecting a response from the mother and the other caretakers.
Our brain is primed and functions correctly within a group setting.


Few People in Our Lives

If to work effectively the human brain requires others around us then by isolating ourselves into our own homes, not ever knowing the next door neighbour or joining any local communities, and then having our own rooms with our own multitude of screens, we are damaging our brain by solitude.
We are creating online communities instead of real face to face connections.
Relationships Matter

Your internal wiring, all of the interconnected systems that you have in your body like the stress response network ,how your immune system works, correct organ function,
the part of the brain involved in creativity, impulse control, language, empathy, sharing, respecting others. All of these are all heavily influenced by your relationships and specially the early relationships between the mother and the child.
The baby is born in capacity state, language is ready to happen, morality is ready to happen, its like an open container waiting to be filled, so depending on whether these functions are properly activated or not these things like language happen.
The baby’s brain has to be ready to either learn Japanese or French, depending on the environment your container fills or not.
Take the word Mom as an example, when we are a baby, and up to 2 years old is when we learn language, so to learn the word Mom we hear the word and we see the person who is our Mom. The brain creates a connection.
Imagine your brain is a sea of thousands of islands and between these Islands there is no bridges, just picture for a moment a rope connecting two of the islands, that’s when we first hear the word Mom and we see our Mom. A small connection is made creating a mini bridge, as we hear this word more and more times the bridge becomes sturdier, first with two ropes and some planks, then with a handrail, when the word Mom is repeated we lay on some concrete and finally some pylons at the end. We have now made a strong connection between islands with our steel and concrete bridge. By the time we are 4 years old the word Mom is strongly associated with this person who gave birth to us.
90% of all these connections that an adult makes are made in the first 6 years and 75% percent of those are made during the first 2 years.
The number of words a child is exposed to depends on her environment. A typical child of a working family hears 100,000 words of encouragement. While in a middle class family a child will hear 600,000 words of encouragement during childhood.
The dangers of a lack of Social Emotional Skills


We are born with the capabilities to be empathic moral, good people, but this depends on the way we relate to people.

Our biggest opportunity
Recent discoveries in neuroscience tell us that in the 3rd trimester, while we are still safely in the womb is when we make the most neuron connections. Up to 20,000 neurons per second are made during this time. Compare that to adults who are making only about 500 new neurons a day. If the mother is stresses at his time the connection1 then the baby will likely suffer from anxiety, lower IQ, more behavioral problems , more cognitive problems.
“We are all a product of our developmental history.
“One of the times when we are most susceptible to the influences of our surrounding environment is when we are developing as a foetus”1
Pampa Sarkar
We are not giving a light on the most important predictor of bad health and early death
We all know the warnings about alcohol and smoking , we know that alcohol produces cirrhosis of the liver, that smoking gives you mouth cancer, that smoking leads to early death, we have warnings everywhere. Smoking is a threat and a very expensive threat at that.
But we now have an even bigger threat in the form of ACEs. The best way to reduce the impact of ACEs is relational health, a good relationship structure. This means more involvement with significant others, people who are caring, more family meals, more quality relationships result in better learning, better attitudes towards others and the health of the planet, more empathy2

The Project

This project starts as the result of the ACE study from 1998. The ACE study was done by an organization with 15,000 employees and a $7billion annual budget. 

The ACE study showed that most of what ails society has the roots in adverse circumstances in childhood. So I wondered if these ACEs can be eliminated completely in a polulation, then its possible to eliminate all the resulting health and social impediments that are a disadvantage to society.
If a polulation of 0 to 1 ACEs had indeed no prisioners and no domestic violence. I this same polulation would have massively reduced cases of heart dicease, diabetes and other health problems. Because if the answer is yes then the whole of society needs to refocus its research, capital and other efforts to a comprehensive program that eliminates ACEs.

I started looking at different sucessful programs like NFP and CYW. These 2 programs are very successful at preventing ACEs and its damaging effects. But they are not implemented in a large scale. The only other similar program is in Sweden.

The individual family, the community, the workplace and thw government must come together to support the mother or couple who because of the faulty idea of the nuclear family are now struggling to give the attention necessary for healthy child development.

So the goal of my project is to gather all the data, all of the research regading early childhood intervention and other programs and synthesised into a tight evidence based program that shows that preventing ACEs is the ultimate solution to humanity’s major challenges.

Then communicate the results to the people and organizations who will implement the results.

Programs like End Violence only target the result of ACEs, they are the band-aid to the problem of Violence. While programmes like NFP prevent violence from ever raising its head. NFP prevents the seed of violence from ever being planted.

The project is born out of the data that indicates that 100% of violent criminals also have a score of 4 or more with 80% scoring 8 or more ACEs.

I had many questions, I wanted to know what happens to a population with 0 or 1 or 2 ACEs.? ..

I wanted to know if school bullying was a result of ACEs being too high.?

I started to connect the dots, and what I saw amazed me:

Most of what ails the world is a direct result of high ACEs and Toxic Stress!

ACE study videos

Personal and Parental Reflections on ACEs…:

The single largest public health threat faced by the world today is ACEs.

Excellent 20 minute presentation by Dr Anda, co presenter of the original ACE study.


This short video was instrumental in the writing on my first poem about the wounds created by emotional pain.