Negative experiences can damage brain development by strengthening neural pathways that remember and learn from those negative experiences. Negative experiences can also affect the pruning and myelination of specific brain pathways. Experiences such as poor nutrition, exposure to secondhand smoke, family stress, and child abuse or neglect can have profound long-term negative effects on the development of a child’s brain. Specific kinds of negative experiences during sensitive periods in development can damage specific parts of the developing brain.
When children have negative experience, such as being yelled at or criticized, their bodies respond by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which activates the “fight-or-flight” survival instinct. When in survival mode, children cannot focus on learning, problem solving, decision making, or other higher-order thinking skills. If the brain remains in survival mode for an extended period, the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for these higher-order thinking skills will be underdeveloped.
The damaging effects of negative experiences depend on three factors:
- Amount of Exposure. Brains exposed to a greater amount of negative experience are more likely to show significant damage.
- Duration. Brains exposed to negative stimulation over a longer period are likely to sustain more damage.
- Timing. Negative experiences during sensitive periods in development are most likely to damage specific parts of the brain.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are negative experiences in childhood that can have long-term effects on physical and mental health. There are three categories of ACEs: abuse, neglect, and household challenges such as the death of a parent or witnessing family violence.
Examples of ACEs include
- Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Being separated from parents through death, divorce, incarceration, or other long-term separation
- Experiencing family violence or adults’ substance use
How Adults Can Help
Adults can help reduce the harmful effects of negative experiences by ensuring that children have
- Loving, responsive, consistent relationships
- Safe and secure environments
- Social and emotional skills
- Experience regulating stress in supportive environments
Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences
Children can thrive even in the midst of negative experience. There is a model called HOPE (Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experience) that aims to help children grow into healthy and resilient adults through positive experiences. HOPE is a way of responding to ACEs. There are four building blocks of HOPE: relationships, environment, engagement and emotional growth. For more information about HOPE, check out the Positive Experiences website.