May 13, 2015

Nurturing Relationships Help Prevent Toxic Stress

Dennis Wygmans is the Deputy State’s Attorney responsible for prosecuting all of the cases of domestic and sexual abuse in Addison County. He has been at that position for nearly two years. Prior to that, he provided legal assistance to businesses, entertainers, and criminal defendants in Vermont, New York, and New Jersey beginning in 2004. Mr. Wygmans came to the legal profession after working for nearly two decades in the music industry, which included owning and booking a Burlington nightclub in the nineties.

Studies have found that children who experience, or even witness, ongoing violence and suffer from trauma without a caring adult to buffer the impact may develop smaller brain mass and lower brain function than those who do not. Ninety percent of the brain develops by the age of five, and healthy brain development during these early years depends on a supportive, nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult. Without the support of a caring, protective adult, there is a significant risk later in life for higher rates of substance abuse, suicide attempts, and depressive disorders.1

As a prosecutor of crimes of domestic and sexual violence, this is evident amongst the child victims and witnesses with whom I interact. Many of these children act out in ways that appear questionable, unless we realize what is happening inside their bodies and the science behind what’s happening in their brains.

When I was 19 years old and in college my 16-year-old cousin came to live with my parents. She had suffered great indignities at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, as well as years of neglect by her mother. As an adult she has suffered from post-traumatic stress due to these experiences from so long ago. She turned to alcohol abuse and failed out of college. She suffered drunken injuries, ran through two marriages, and struggled financially. Finally, after 25 years of a life dominated by dysfunction, she took control, entered treatment and has begun to rebuild her life.

Like my cousin, many of the child victims I interact with turn to drugs and alcohol, some attempt suicide, and many are being treated for depression. These circumstances further impact brain development and it becomes a never-ending spiral for some. What generally separates those who enter this spiral from those who avoid it is a caring parent or caregiver. It’s never too late for children who have a difficult start, but studies show that it’s much more expensive to help them later in life than during the early years, when the brain is developing most rapidly.2

A parent or caregiver who is there to listen, encourage, and support can make all the difference in the world. The kind of abuse I see every day impacts a child’s ability to trust others and to develop healthy relationships. Often, after a child suffers abuse, the behaviors that placed them at risk are actually amplified. Having a person there to provide a sense of safety in a loving, nurturing environment can help to moderate the severity of these behaviors. The children who have a supporting adult to turn to more readily engage in counseling, see lessened impacts upon their studies, and have a greater sense of security. That’s not to say there aren’t setbacks. But, it’s a lot easier to rebound when there’s someone by your side, than when you have to sift through the wreckage on your own.

I have witnessed firsthand the buffer that a caring parent can provide to a child victim. These parents provide the foundation of support on which a child can begin to recover. Without that support, the child would have to navigate the legal and healthcare systems on their own, in addition to trying to maintain their education and engage in counseling. The children who have had to face this alone have ended up bouncing between foster homes, have failed out of school, and have succumbed to self-harm and self-medication. Whereas, those with a supportive adult have been able to engage in meaningful counseling, had someone else there to explain how the criminal justice system works, and to be there when it seems like the system is letting them down.

Now, my cousin is my sister. She lives with my family. She gives my six-year-old daughter the love and affection that she never received herself as a child. She is successful at work, and is advancing her education. She still has a hard time dealing with stress. But, because of my parents’ involvement in her life, she’s been able to cope without turning to alcohol.

It is all of our responsibility to ensure that every child has at least one trusted, caring adult in their life to help mitigate the impacts of stress and help their brains develop well. Children's success, and ultimately the success of our communities, depends on it.

1 Harvard Center on the Developing Child, InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children's Development

2 Heckman, James. J, Invest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy.


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