by Ashley Bennett, Director of Trauma-Informed Care
The Karyn Purvis Institute for Child Development recognizes 7 risk factors for our children that can adversely affect their development. As you read below, consider how many of these factors are part of your child’s story.
Prenatal Stress or Harm– Facing an unplanned pregnancy, living in poverty, struggling with untreated mental illness, and enduring partner violence all lead to a mother experiencing higher levels of chronic toxic stress while she is carrying her child. And what new research tells us is that cortisol, the stress hormone, crosses the placenta and reaches our babies. Which means that children of mothers who have high levels of chronic stress during pregnancy likely have changed nervous systems when they are born and this can affect them for years to come.
Difficult Labor or Birth-Unexpected complications, longer hospital stays, premature birth-all these experiences have the possibility of causing stress and altering a child’s nervous system.
Early Hospitalization– The hospital experience for a newborn can include less physical touch, a variety of caregivers, painful medical procedures, and an overwhelming overload of sensory experiences. And through this all, a child begins to form implicit memories of the way the world works, memories he won’t necessarily be able to make sense of because he won’t be able to talk to anyone about it. Any hospital stay an infant endures early in life may have negative affects on him.
Abuse-This is the most obvious and expected risk factor. Any level of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse a child endures can affect his body, behaviors, and beliefs and wire his brain for protection instead of connection. In this category, we also include a baby’s substance exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero.
Neglect-Neglect includes not having access to enough food, not having access to appropriate medical care, living in an unsafe physical environment, being left alone unsupervised for an inappropriate amount of time, or being relationally isolated. Neglect has one of the most extreme effects on a child’s developing brain and should never be downplayed as a lesser form of harm. “Abuse tells a child he isn’t liked; neglect tells a child he doesn’t exist.”-Dr. Karyn Purvis
Trauma-This category covers other major life transitions such as the loss of a parent, a natural disaster, or other tragedies. All people respond differently to these types of traumas but going though one can bring about feelings of fear and a loss of control, especially if you are left to deal with it alone.
System Effects-And finally we know that being involved in the foster care system is a risk factor itself. Entering foster care means that a child has been separated from their primary caregiver, a significant loss. Within the foster care system, a child can experience further harm by not being given a cohesive narrative of what is going on, by being separated from siblings, moving foster homes, being placed in residential or group home settings, and even enduring additional abuse or neglect while in foster care. The foster care system is not a system of healing, and we have to recognize that if we are to support our children as they navigate it.