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Prolonged stress in young children can slow — or even stop — both brain development and physical growth. Prolonged exposure to cortisol released during the stress response can cause long-term damage to the developing brain, and can negatively affect the immune system.
Repeated experiences in the environment create networks of connections within the brain. When children regularly experiences chaos or stress, their brains become wired to react quickly to threatening, stressful experiences. Even after the threat is removed, the brain may continue to respond as if the stress is still present. Children whose brains have been wired by prolonged stress may overreact in some situations. Prolonged stress may lead to learning difficulties, delays in brain development, and later difficulties coping with life's demands.
The brain stem is responsible for the most basic functions necessary for survival. It is the first part of the brain to develop, and the first part to react to perceived threats. The brain stem sends signalsto other parts of the brain. In a fully developed adult brain, the frontal lobe takes action and chooses a rational response to the threatening situation.
Young children, whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, cannot respond rationally to stress. Children's responses to stress are controlled by the more primitive areas of the brain. In order to handle stress and return to calm, young children needs caregivers to comfort and reassure them that they are safe. If the environment is constantly threatening, or children do not have a reliable caregiver, they will rely on the primitive areas of the brain to handle stress. The brain stem will become over-developed, and areas responsible for emotional control and rational decision-making may not develop fully. Warning signs of an imbalance in brain development due to prolonged stress may include anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, lack of empathy, and poor problem-solving skills.