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Adverse childhood experiences can affect brain development, leading to long-lasting impacts during one's life.

K-State expert: Communities can help reduce children’s stress

Kansas extension agents aim to help families work through ‘toxic stress’

June 9, 2020

OTTAWA, Kan. – More than three out of five youth in the United States will experience at least one adverse event during their childhood, according to a landmark study conducted by Kaiser Permanente that dates back 25 years.

“That means our co-workers, friends, family and community members may have experienced childhood adversity,” said Rebecca McFarland, a family and child development agent in K-State Research and Extension’s Frontier District in Ottawa, Kansas.

In 1997, the Kaiser study introduced a concept known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) to define the connection between abuse, neglect and other household challenges and their effect on a person’s health and well-being later in life.

At the time, Kaiser reported that 61% of children in 25 states studied had at least one ACE that resulted in ‘toxic’ stress – severe, long-lasting impacts such as family violence, parental depression, physical or emotional abuse, and others.

In subsequent studies, Kaiser reported that one in six children had experienced four or more ACEs.

Kansas was not included in Kaiser's original studies, but data on behavioral risk factors for the state's youth has been collected since the 1990s, McFarland said. She's spent the past six years studying the issue, and working to implement positive changes to help families suffering from toxic stress.

“I see the impact it has on individuals, families and our community,” said McFarland, who has worked in extension for 26 years. “Since 2014, I’ve been working with volunteers in our community to provide social support; resources; child development and parenting education; and other essential living skills.”

In a recent training session for K-State Research and Extension family and consumer sciences agents, McFarland talked about how toxic stress caused by ACEs affects children.

“Early childhood is the most sensitive time for brain development, or a time when the brain forms neural pathways that leads to lifetime cognitive development,” McFarland said.

“It’s like laying out the grid of a town according to your experiences. It’s going to shape the way you view the world.”

Some stress is good for children, McFarland said: “Coping with small everyday stresses, such as having a toy taken away by another child, helps the brain learn to deal with challenges and prepares the child to handle more serious stresses.”

Tolerable stresses may include dealing with the effects of a natural disaster, especially when the child receives support from a loving caregiver. In those cases, the child’s stress response system returns to baseline once the adversity is removed, McFarland said.

But toxic stress can cause long-term negative effects. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that repeated exposure to childhood adversity and the resulting toxic stress can lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy coping behaviors.

Further, the CDC said over the course of one’s life, toxic stress as a child can lead to increased risk of physical injury, sexually transmitted infections, mental health problems, maternal and child health problems, teen pregnancy and a wide range of chronic diseases. The leading causes of death – cancer, diabetes, heart disease and suicide – have all been linked to ACEs.

Fortunately, McFarland said, for those who have suffered through childhood trauma, it is possible to re-train the brain.

“This may be very difficult at first, because we learn about who we can trust at a very early age and if those first experiences or relationships are unstable and unpredictable, we learn we cannot rely on others,” McFarland said.

“However, social connections and support is vital to healing. There are a number of strategies and practices that people who have experienced trauma use in their journey of healing, such as yoga, mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy, journaling and more. It is really individualized and a process or journey. There are many groups in communities across the nation that provide support, encouragement and a safe space for individuals to heal.”

In a new publication from the K-State Research and Extension bookstore, Understanding the Impact of Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress, McFarland cites a 2017 study reporting that family and community are among the important buffers for alleviating or preventing the effects of toxic stress.

“We quickly pass judgment when we see a child or family struggling or displaying some of the signs and symptoms of toxic stress, without knowing their situation or story,” McFarland said. “As a community, we need to realize that we can prevent childhood adversity and trauma, but we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and be willing to help others.”

Family-level buffers, she said, include supportive relationships, family cohesion or ‘sticking together,’ parental relationships, stable caregiving and stable employment.

Community buffers include non-family relationships and social support; religion; community cohesion; civic engagement and economic development. Such activities as career workshops, parenting classes, summer camps for youth or sports programs and other after-school activities often can provide the support that children and families need.

“We need to work on policies, systems and environmental changes, such as family-friendly work policies and changing social norms that relate to child development, child safety and discipline,” McFarland said.

“The dominant narrative in the United States is the idea that anyone can get ahead on their own if they work hard enough. However, we know that this thinking focuses on individual responsibility and ignores social conditions and contextual causes. Another social norm or belief is whether it's appropriate for parents to seek help in parenting. Parents who have inadequate parenting skills or are experiencing health and financial issues have more difficulty parenting and providing nurturing, safe, stable relationships and environments.”

More information or assistance may be available from your local K-State Research and Extension office. Staff there may also be able to direct you to other local services.

Sidebar: Five strategies for community support

Communities provide important support for helping children and families manage stress in their lives.

K-State Research and Extension family and child development agent Rebecca McFarland lists five strategies for communities to promote stable and nurturing environments for children and families:

  • Strengthen economic supports for families.
  • Change social norms to support parents and positive parenting.
  • Provide quality care and education early in life.
  • Enhance parenting skills.
  • Intervene to lessen harms and prevent future risk.

At a glance

More than three out of five youth will experience at least one adverse event during their childhood, but a K-State expert says it’s possible to re-train the brain for future physical and mental health.


Department of Applied Human Sciences, Child Development

Notable quote

“Early childhood is the most sensitive time for brain development, or a time when the brain forms neural pathways that leads to lifetime cognitive development. It’s like laying out the grid of a town according to your experiences. It’s going to shape the way you view the world.”

-- Rebecca McFarland, family and child development agent, K-State Research and Extension Frontier District


Rebecca McFarland

Written by

Pat Melgares

For more information: 

Understanding the Impact of Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress


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K‑State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the wellbeing of Kansans.
Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county extension offices, experiment fields, area extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K‑State campus in Manhattan.