Tiffany and Briana are only five years old, but already, their environments have had effects that can last their lifetimes.

We began our ”Tale of Two Children” about Tiffany and Briana in the last edition of Perceptions, and in the coming weeks, we’ll check in on the two five-year-olds to see how they are doing and how their futures are being shaped in their earliest years.

Stress on Parents Also Affects Children

Tiffany is the older child of a single mother who dropped out of school to give birth to her. Tiffany and her family have lived with her grandmother off and on since she was born. Her family often doesn’t have money for the basics, and even at her age, she can see the toll that stress is taking on her mother.

The house next door is boarded up, and her mother tells her not to talk to the people who sometimes go in and out of it. The good news is that while her neighborhood has more than its share of crime and blight, there is no domestic violence taking place in her home and her mother is doing her best to teach Tiffany the alphabet and colors, and to count to 20. She is also doing her best to model the positive parenting – the love and nurturing – that her own grandmother practiced and that she remembers so well. But, she is frequently frustrated, because as a high school dropout, she feels that she lacks the education to know all that she should to be the best parent she can, and as a single parent, she does not have the means to respond to Tiffany’s natural curiosity and to expand her experiences.

Briana has a brother too, and her parents have been reading to them almost nightly since they were born. And touching, talking, reading, and playing are fundamental parts of their lives. They live in a neighborhood where houses are sold quickly and where people talk about the importance of school. With two incomes and enough time between them to both work and parent, Briana’s parents have been able to give their children books, games, and special activities like going to the zoo, visiting the riverfront, and attending a concert at Levitt Shell.

Both girls have just started kindergarten, but Tiffany is likely to face higher hurdles than Briana because of the stress that is a part of her everyday life. Tiffany’s home environment is much better than many of her friends, but she still copes with the results of poor nutrition, the chaos from frequent moves to different homes, and the lack of quality child care and the other risks common for children living in poverty. This early stress in life can also have an impact on her as an adult, because scientists have discovered that a child’s environment from conception to early childhood creates biological memories.

Early Experiences Last a Lifetime

These genetic memories are the focus of a new field of science called epigenetics. It accounts for how early stress can result in long-term consequences by biologically embedding these early experiences into the developing brain. In other words, epigenetics helps explain how powerful negative environmental and home conditions – diet, stress, prenatal nutrition (the child’s environment, in general) and exposure to certain chemicals (such as BPA in some plastics) – can leave an imprint on genetic material that can result in adult health issues like hypertension, heart disease, obesity, substance abuse, and mental illness years later.

Epigenetics is discovering that enduring changes in gene activity do not change DNA itself, but through chemical changes, the code for how the DNA is used is affected, because of “markers” left on certain parts of the gene that can influence how the gene is expressed in a person’s life. In other words, if DNA is the hardware, the epigenetic process is the software that directs the functioning of a gene’s DNA, influencing the health and well being of an individual in powerful ways.

This complex interplay of factors and risks are compounding as a result of gene and environmental effects on developing brains, but there is no better way to create positive brain development than with mothers and fathers that are nurturing and a home that is stable. Environments have effects that can last a lifetime.

This was previously posted as The Urban Child Institute’s Perceptions commentaries.