Work to end child abuse

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Why does Prevention matter? Because we have a very special opportunity to consider the best path to a prosperous future for our community, by giving all children the experiences they need to become leaders tomorrow. This is what Child Abuse Prevention Month is all about: we want to engage our coalition of businesses, faith communities, community-based programs and concerned individuals in understanding, and then sharing with others, what it means to create a community that enables all of its children to develop — socially, emotionally and cognitively.

What does development, and specifically, brain development, have to do with ending child abuse? Plenty. Science, and studies such as the *ACE, tells us that the experiences children have early in life actually build the architecture of their developing brains. Brains are built over time, just like houses. And just as a well-built house requires a strong foundation, our children’s brains also need a strong foundation for all of the development that comes after. Experiences of abuse and neglect damage this foundation, harm brain development, and diminish our community’s future. * (ACE Study, 2014).

Science also tells us that certain environments produce “toxic stress “ — or chronic conditions such as extreme poverty and abusive situations — that can compromise the brain’s architecture and destabilize that foundation, derailing later development. Fortunately, the research also tells us what types of environments ensure healthy brain development, what types of environments produce toxic stress, and what communities, health practitioners, teachers and ordinary citizens can do to ensure that all of our children have the solid foundations they need for healthy development

First, while it’s vitally important to provide children with opportunities to develop their cognitive abilities, we must pay equal attention to their social and emotional abilities. That’s because all of the developmental domains work together, each affecting and affected by the other. This development happens in an environment of relationships, where children have the opportunity to develop interactions with caregivers in a “serve and return” fashion, much like in a game of tennis or volleyball. When an infant or child reaches out for interaction with a caregiver, and that caregiver responds consistently and appropriately, critical neural pathways in children’s brains are built. Healthy pathways are not built in the brains of children who are living in environments of abuse and neglect, which has a negative impact on children’s development — in the short and long term.

Secondly, children need environments free of toxic stress, or the kind of chronic, serious stress caused by experiences such as violence, abuse or neglect. This toxic stress literally damages children’s brains by releasing chemicals in the brain that stunt cell growth. This even impairs their physical health because children develop an exaggerated stress response that weakens their defense system against later illness, from heart disease to diabetes and depression.

In order to support healthy brain development in all children, we need to maintain a comprehensive set of programs to protect children from exposure to toxic stress, and encourage strong “serve and return” interactions with their caregivers. One way to do this is by supporting Emma’s House. When a child is interviewed at Emma’s House, in a child-friendly setting with support provided to children and their caregivers, a connection is made. Emma’s House can provide medical care, trauma focused counseling, outreach and education to our school and community organizations , and we can connect families to the community supports they need to buffer toxic stress, increasing the likelihood of healthy outcomes.

Go to this letter online at www.ravallirepublic.com/opinion to find a list of events and trainings. Due to space limitations, they could not be printed here. Please join us to create positive, healthy environments that support children’s development. With private and public funds, we will continue this vital initiative to end child abuse in our community, and create a more prosperous, positive future for all of us.

Hannah Honey