Local headlines remind us almost daily that Hawke’s Bay has a serious — and apparently escalating — youth violence problem. Children following in the footsteps of their parents.

Can we fight it with hugs?

Yes! says a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, that nation’s premier association of pediatricians, based upon fresh analysis of two decades of scientific research, which confirms that early exposure to ‘toxic stress’ for infants, and even fetuses, can have biological effects … effectively hard-wiring certain predispositions and behaviours into the individual.

As reported in this NY Times column:

“Toxic stress might arise from parental abuse of alcohol or drugs. It could occur in a home where children are threatened and beaten. It might derive from chronic neglect — a child cries without being cuddled. Affection seems to defuse toxic stress — keep those hugs and lullabies coming! — suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector.

Cues of a hostile or indifferent environment flood an infant, or even a fetus, with stress hormones like cortisol in ways that can disrupt the body’s metabolism or the architecture of the brain.

The upshot is that children are sometimes permanently undermined. Even many years later, as adults, they are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments. They are also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.

The crucial period seems to be from conception through early childhood. After that, the brain is less pliable and has trouble being remolded.”

What kind of interventions does this science-based model suggest?

According to the Times:

“One successful example of early intervention is home visitation by childcare experts, like those from the Nurse-Family Partnership. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2.

At age 6, studies have found, these children are only one-third as likely to have behavioral or intellectual problems as others who weren’t enrolled. At age 15, the children are less than half as likely to have been arrested.”

The bottom line for the Academy (download full Policy Statement here):

“Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.”

The Academy urges pediatricians to educate themselves about the underlying biological processes affected by ‘toxic stress’ and to become community advocates for science-based interventions.

How might we get this approach rolling in Hawke’s Bay? You could start by forwarding this post to every pediatrician and GP you know!

Tom Belford

P.S. I’ll put my money on the hugs, but until that approach gains traction, here’s another way to support those in the community who are today trying to help victims of violence. Keith Newman, writing in the latest BayBuzz mag, reports on an unusual charity event on January 28 at Pettigrew Green Arena that will benefit the Napier Women’s Refuge. It’s a ‘fight night’, featuring local corporate contenders in three-round matches (plus some full-on bouts with seasoned martial artists). A fight night benefiting victims of violence? Read Keith’s piece — Corporate Punch Up for Battered Families — to see why and how. The event is called ‘Merciless’ and tickets are available here via Ticketek and at the venue. ‘Merciless’ is organised by Jerry Sargeant of Napier’s Fierce Fitness gym.

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