Perceptions from The Urban Child Institute

There is a flood in Memphis.  Every year.

It may not be as dramatic as the rising of the Mississippi River but it’s much more serious in the long run.

It’s the stress flooding the lives of too many of our youngest children every day.

There is of course the stress that comes from families coping with the rising water of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.  Damage to their housing, relocation, and lack of necessities heighten stress on children.

And yet, once the flooding waters recede, Memphis will still have tens of thousands of infants and toddlers gripped by prolonged stress in their every day lives at the precise time when their brains are growing the fastest – to 80 percent of its adult size by their third birthday.

During a natural disaster, Memphis is united by our concern for the children living in shelters and displaced by flooding waters.  We come together to join the fight against the forces of nature that threaten our neighbors.  We prove that we can mobilize to help the youngest among us and to show them that their city cares for them.

We have to do the same for the youngest children in Memphis when there is no natural disaster but a calamity of human proportions. That’s because regardless of what the weather is doing or what the river stage is, we have another disaster to fight – the prolonged stress on children under three years of age.   It’s this kind of sustained stress that can slow – or even stop – brain development.

Here’s the science: cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is released in response to stress, and when stress is prolonged, it can cause long-term damage to the developing brain.

It’s also a scientific fact that the vast majority of the brain’s network of connections is formed by a child’s third birthday as a result of his experiences.  If those experiences are stressful, the child’s brain becomes wired to react to threatening situations quickly, and even when the stress is gone, the connection has been formed and the brain may respond as if the stress remains.

The brain stem, when confronted by a perceived threat, triggers the frontal lobe to determine the proper response.  In young children whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, they have to rely on the more primitive part of their brains that is motivated more by emotion than by reason.  If stress on a child is prolonged, this part of their brain is over-developed and emotional control and rational decision-making suffer.

In addition, the prolonged stress can lead to anxiety, lack of empathy, and learning difficulties, and undercut the ability of many children to cope with life later.  It’s a serious dilemma for Memphis because almost 40% of our children live in poverty where stress levels are higher and more chronic.

In other words, we need to stand tall to fight against this potential for disaster just as surely as we fight against natural disasters.  We begin by taking a stand for our youngest children.

We do it by getting more people engaged in parenting programs and interventions in the lives of young children and by calling for more funding for home visitation programs and expanded Early Head Start.
Most of all, we stand together to send the message that every child is worth fighting for.  If the flood is ever to end, we need to begin a campaign now to clean up the threat of prolonged stress in the lives of so many Memphis children.
These are our perceptions at The Urban Child Institute.