Prolonged stress early in childhood has an impact on a child’s behavior and ability to learn.

But scientists with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University also say extended periods of heavy stress, like those experienced by kids separated from their families at the U.S. border may create life-long health problems.

Chronic neglect, child abuse or a sudden separation from parents: all situations that put a child’s stress response system into overdrive. Jack Shonkoff is a pediatrician who studies early childhood adversity and health.

For starters, here’s what happens to kids when stress hormones, like cortisol, stay elevated for a long time.

"They go from making you more alert to actually disrupting the brain circuits particularly in parts of the brain that are developing in young children," Shonkoff explained.

Shonkoff says toxic stress over a long period can also disrupt the immune system. In one study, adults were asked if they’d experienced one or more of 10 types of childhood maltreatment or household dysfunction.

These types of adverse childhood experiences, without adequate support from a care-giving adult, can cause toxic stress, and the study found that those adults with more adverse childhood experiences had a greater likelihood of having more health problems as adults, like obesity, heart disease, cancer, alcoholism and depression.

Earlier this year, Shonkoff testified before Congress about the U.S. border separations based on multiple studies on toxic stress.

"There is no question that as a group these children will have problems in health, both physical health and mental health and development in their lives that they would not have had if this had not been done to them," Shonkoff testified.

Shonkoff said kids need reassurance and a sense of safety from a parent or trusted caregiver to start reversing the damage.

"There’s nothing, no medicine," he said. "There’s no treatment program, no intervention strategy that comes close to simply reuniting children with their parents."

Shonkoff said very young children are the most vulnerable to prolonged separation. He says since they are not able to understand what is happening, their bodies respond to the separation as an emergency, biologically.

Recommended for you