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Early trauma can last a lifetime

When looking at the numbers of kids who are experiencing maltreatment of some kind, we might feel pain on their behalf or outrage at what they’re going through. It’s certainly an appropriate response. Kids don’t deserve to be treated badly, and that’s something that most adults know because we feel it in our very cores.

But, for the sake of this blog post, I want to challenge us to move our thinking beyond the moment(s) that a child experiences maltreatment and look a few years down the road. Let’s use some research to help us become fortune tellers.

Just last year, 5,169 Nebraska children were victims of abuse or neglect. Of those kids, 67% were ages 8 and under. Maltreatment is a travesty at any age, but we know that young children are particularly vulnerable to the long-term effects of abuse. That’s because the stress hormones that are released in a scary situation affect how the brain develops – doing early damage that can have lasting consequences. According to a report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, intervening early is important not only to stop the child’s suffering but also because it presents the “opportunity to prevent enduring impairment that can lead to a lifetime of poor mental and physical health, diminished economic productivity, and antisocial behavior.”

In other words, children’s brains can change when trauma occurs – and it isn’t for the better and it isn’t easily fixed. Such changes to a developing brain follow the child into adulthood, into the community, and ultimately into the child’s own future family. Fortunately, there are policy solutions that can help. “When delivered effectively, such interventions could have a multiplier effect into the next generation by reducing both the individual and societal costs of the negative development effects of persistent fear,” according to the report.

The thing about projecting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. The worst-case scenarios – poor mental health, antisocial behavior, physical disease, violent crime – can be mitigated through smart policy. Early intervention can protect kids now and pave the way for them to become healthy, productive adults.

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