How prolonged distress and difficulties affect the developing brain, and how to support adolescent parents who have faced these challenges.
By Hilary Nobilo, Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
A number of tamariki in New Zealand experience adversity during their early years, such as chaotic or violent family environments, abuse, neglect, poverty and parents’ substance use. When adverse experiences are severe, repeated or ongoing, the fear and anxiety that tamariki can experience sets off stress response systems in their brain and body, over and over again.[i] When stress response systems become overloaded in this way, and there is no close adult who can comfort and calm them, developing pathways in the young brains of tamariki can be disrupted.[ii]
Building the young brain
A young brain is very sensitive or ‘plastic’ to the types of relationships and experiences tamariki have, whether they are positive or negative.[iii] This is called neuroplasticity. When tamariki have loving relationships and healthy, safe environments, their brain is more likely to wire itself to help them develop, learn and behave in healthy ways.[iv] When their relationships and experiences are inconsistent, frightening or harmful, the brain can wire itself in different ways.[v]
What can happen?
Not all tamariki who experience early stressful circumstances have poor outcomes; however, they are more likely to do so. Some will have physical, mental health and behaviour problems, they may find it difficult to learn and to do well at school and may struggle to have successful friendships.[vi] Those who become parents may find it hard to build healthy, secure relationships with their own pēpi while they’re trying to cope with their personal challenges (see Adolescent parents and their relationships with parents and peers).
Rangatahi who experienced early adversity are more likely than others their age to continue to experience situations that may be harmful, such as using tobacco, alcohol and drugs, and having unprotected sex, which may lead to pregnancy.[vii] (See Adolescents and alcohol). They’re less likely to have good whānau and community support, they may have conflict with members of their whānau and some will have mental health problems such as depression[viii] (see Adolescent parents and their relationships with parents and peers).
All of these are risks that can have a snowball effect. The more risks that tamariki and rangatahi experience, the greater the chance that they will have poor outcomes, such as higher rates of depression and behaviour problems.[ix]
The adolescent brain
The brain can change and reorganise itself in response to experiences throughout life.[x] However, it’s easier for changes to happen during adolescence than in adulthood. Positive relationships and experiences rangatahi have can change how their brain works in healthy ways that may be lasting.[xi]
Genes can play a part
Some rangatahi who experience early adversity have better outcomes as they grow than others. These rangatahi may have supportive adults around them and supportive communities, or they may experience a change of circumstances that lessens some of their risks. Rangatahi can be less or more vulnerable to the harmful effects of early adversity partly due to the genes they were born with.[xii] The genetic make-up of some rangatahi makes them more negatively affected by harmful relationships and experiences. However, these same rangatahi may also benefit more than others from positive, supportive relationships and experiences.[xiii]
What can help
Brain plasticity during adolescence creates opportunities for positive changes to be made. Strengthening relationships can make a difference for young parents. While warm, close-knit whānau are among the most important supports, rangatahi who have problems in their relationships within their whānau may be more dependent on other outside support people to provide the care and guidance they need.
Every risk that can be reduced helps to improve their outcomes. Some ways to reduce risk include ensuring they have warm, dry housing and helping them to access financial entitlements and increase their own financial capability. Supporting rangatahi to build skills that help them adapt to and cope with stress, such as helping them to set goals and problem-solve can make a positive difference (see Positive youth development: Another way of looking at teens and resilient rangatahi).
Teen parents need support from people they can trust, who treat them in respectful ways and who they feel really care about them.[xiv] It’s important for whānau supporters and other involved adults to be aware that early adversity may have influenced the development, health and behaviour of these rangatahi. Providing positive support for a young parent is likely to have positive effects on their ability to parent, their relationship with their own pēpi and the way in which their pēpi develops.
While each of these supports can make a difference, the biggest changes are likely to happen when a combination of supports are put in place. In the same way that the number of risks add up to increase the chance of poor outcomes, the more supports there are, the greater the chance of improving outcomes.
All parents need support. However, young parents who’ve experienced early adversity are particularly vulnerable. They may benefit from extra care, possibly including specialist support; for example, to address mental health concerns.[xv] Those who’ve been affected the most by early adversity may also be the ones who respond the best when good support is put in place.
- The brains of babies and young children can change in response to severe or ongoing early adversity.
- These changes can affect their health, development, learning and behaviour, including the way in which they parent their own tamariki.
- For some rangatahi, the effects of early adversity are compounded by later adversity.
- The adolescent brain is more plastic than an adult brain and can change more easily in response to positive supports and experiences in ways that can be lasting.
- Each risk that is reduced and each support that is put in place can improve outcomes for young parents and their tamariki.
- When relationships are healthy, parents and whānau are among the most important supports for young parents.
Collins, B. (2010). Resilience in teenage mothers: A follow-up study. Wellington: Ministry of Social Development. Retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/sole-parenting/resilience-in-teenage-mothers.pdf(external link)
Easterbrooks, M. A., Chaudhuri, J. H., Bartlett, J. D., & Copeman, A. (2011). Resilience in parenting among young mothers: Family and ecological risks and opportunities. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 42–50.
Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., & Blakemore, S. J. (2015). Adolescence as a sensitive period of brain development. Trends in Cognitive Science, 19(10), 558–566.
Grazioplene, R. G., DeYoung, C. G., Rogosch, F. A., & Cicchetti, D. (2012). A novel differential susceptibility gene: CHRNA4 and moderation of the effect of maltreatment on child personality. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(8), 872–880.
Mitchell, K. J., Tynes, B., Umana-Taylor, A. J., & Williams, D. (2015). Cumulative experiences with life adversity: Identifying critical levels for targeting prevention efforts. Journal of Adolescence, 43, 63–71.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2010). Persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children's learning and development. Working Paper 9. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Persistent-Fear-and-Anxiety-Can-Affect-Young-Childrens-Learning-and-Development.pdf(external link)
Raposa, E. B., Hammen, C. L., Brennan, P. A., O'Callaghan, F., & Najman, J. M. (2014). Early adversity and health outcomes in young adulthood: The role of ongoing stress. Health Psychology, 33(5), 410–418.
Shonkoff, J. P. (2012). Leveraging the biology of adversity to address the roots of disparities in health and development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 109(2), 17302–17307.
[i] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010
[ii] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010
[iii] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010
[iv] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010
[v] Shonkoff, 2012
[vi] Raposa et al., 2014
[vii] Raposa et al., 2014
[viii] Raposa et al., 2014
[ix] Mitchell et al., 2015
[x] Shonkoff, 2012
[xi] Fuhrmann et al., 2015
[xii] Grazioplene et al., 2012
[xiii] Grazioplene et al., 2012
[xiv] Beier, 2000, as cited in Collins, 2010
[xv] Easterbrooks et al., 2011