How exposure to adversity effects the developing child

I’ve known people, my mother was one, who although very intelligent, open to considering new ideas, otherwise insightful, would rather kill you than acknowledge their own anger or the harm that was done to them in childhood.   Literally, repressing enough pain that they looked like they’d rather kill you than admit to being angry enough to smash someone.  

“We never fucking killed anyone, asshole!” they say as a chorus now in my mind, I can see their faces, not relaxed, calm or even, in some cases, recognizable as themselves.  

“‘Face twisted and contorted in hate,'” my sister quotes our father, and we both laugh.  It was a phrase we heard many times over the Rice-a-roni, flank steak and salad at our formica dinner table in Queens.  It was snarled, this peculiar phrase, and stated in exactly those words each time.  A very curious phrase to be repeated verbatim, if you think about it.

 “Twisted AND contorted,” my sister will say, and we’ll both have another chuckle.  But we were not chuckling then, during those terrible battles, nor am I chuckling about it now.  

My sister, working in a terrible school, is afraid to apply to move to a better one.  “It’s a concentration camp but I’m used to it,” she says, “and I don’t want to leave all my friends I’ve cried with for years.”  She agrees it would be better to make new friends she could celebrate with sometimes, instead of just crying and commiserating, but, in spite of being a master teacher, and someone who makes friends easily, she’s afraid to change schools.

“I’ve told your sister a thousand times what a wonderful teacher she is,” said my father on his deathbed, “but no matter how many times I tell her, it makes no difference.”  

“A thousand times?” I ask him.  

“Many, many times,” he says, remembering distinctly the time he told her that, at the assembly at the school where her class performed, and another one, more than one, besides.  To him that was a lot.  “I told her a thousand times,” seems to indicate that.  

“A thousand times,” says my sister with her trademark irony.  Not for nothing did she dub her father the D.U., The Dreaded Unit.  

“You are a whiner,” says an observer.  

“Do you hear me actually whine?” I ask the jury.  On closer inspection I notice the jury is composed of a couple of weatherbeaten mannequins, a decomposing cadaver, three skeletons and a few unidentifiable animals preserved by amateurish taxidermy and propped crudely on the chairs of the jury box.

The judge, for his part, is indescribably horrible.  Good thing this is a jury trial, I think to myself.


How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. (Laughter) But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

Nadine Burke Harris, MD



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