by Jenn Morson
New research shows that stress when you’re young stays with you forever and ever
When I was 5-1/2 years old, my father gave me to my aunt and uncle to raise as their own. I was given no warning, thinking I was just visiting family, but when it came time to leave, I was left behind.
My aunt and uncle slowly became Mom and Dad as it became crystal clear this was not a temporary arrangement. They were my family. And it was a great family to be part of. I was raised by parents who loved me and cared for me — the kind of parents who showed up. I was never treated any differently than their other children.
Despite that, I was quickly recognized as not living up to my potential. Even though I always tested in the top 1 percent on standardized tests, my parents would hear from teachers who couldn’t figure out why I was so smart and yet didn’t turn in homework. Understandably, my parents became frustrated. Words like “lazy” and “apathetic” were thrown around. And by the time I was a teenager, I assumed that was the problem. I was lazy. I didn’t care. I got decent enough grades without putting in much effort, so there was no dire emergency. I even managed a small academic scholarship.
By the time I reached college, I was most definitely depressed, but I didn’t know what that meant. In addition to a lack of motivation, I was now also experiencing some pretty serious self-confidence issues. My GPA dropped to the C range, which cost me my scholarship. Thousands of dollars wasted left my parents with some very legitimate anger. Still, I managed to graduate and get a job.
Eventually, I sought therapy and have been on a variety of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications throughout my adult life. It took years to sort it all out, but I am happy to have found treatment and to acknowledge that I wasn’t just lazy, I needed help.
And suddenly, thanks to research by the University of Cambridge published on their Child and Family Blog, all of this makes a lot more sense. Psychology professor Jamie Hanson writes of the study, “Adults who had endured high levels of stress between the ages of 5 and 8 typically displayed less activity than normal in the parts of their brains linked to motivation, positive moods and depression.”
Researchers also hypothesize that children under 5 will yield similar results but the scans of children over 8 do not appear to contain the same permanent damage.
It’s interesting because it’s counterintuitive to the idea that children are resilient. The good news is, instead of an either/or, this is a both/and scenario. While children are permanently affected, they are also resilient. However, experts argue that early intervention is key. The very reason that children under 8 are so affected is the same reason they are at a good age to prevent permanent mental health damage. Acknowledging trauma and seeking support for children and families is crucial to the healing process.
My own experiences may have changed me beyond my control, and while I am still dealing with lasting effects of my childhood trauma, this new research brings hope for children currently experiencing sorrow and stress. We will never be able to prevent children from experiencing tragedy, but at least we now know more about how to help them heal.