If you can save only a few things, save someone’s childhood

Jean and Mona are identical twins, but their fate began to split in early childhood. They both lived in the same house in Negros Oriental, in a very poor family with 6 other children. Neither of their parents cared for them in any significant way. Jean’s father, a drunk, once poured gasoline on a sleeping Jean when she was about 6, and lit a match that burned her. Mona was raped by her own brother when she was only 8 years old.

However, Jean, for some reason, as early as when she 5 or 6 years old in school, was close to her school teacher. She would stay with her for as long as she could each day. She became very close to her teacher, who was very nurturing. Mona, however, was not close to this teacher, and especially after being raped and not being able to process it, became very distant and indifferent to school or to any other adult who could help her. 

Now, both of them are 17. Jean has the maturity and learning capacity of a 10-year-old, and so does Mona. But Jean has stayed in school and is building her life, and is now living with her grade school teacher, while Mona has long left school and is nowhere to be found. 

Nothing is as unrepeatable as childhood. Despite baggage, real or imagined, at any age you can fall in love again, go back to school, or find another career, but you can never redeem your childhood once you get past it. It is also why it makes us feel so sorry for adults who behave like children. It should be the unconditional clause in anyone’s life to have gone through childhood with enough support for your growth, because a lot of what happened or what did not happen in your childhood will most likely determine the adult you will become. That is why when we talk about the future of our family, community, country, or the world, fundamental attention should go to ensuring that children get enough support, and if they are at risk, to save them from childhood adversities. 

It has already been established that the first 1,000 days of the child pretty much sets her or him up for the future. The converse is true – anything that is messed up for her or him during that time will also adversely affect her or him for the rest of her or his life.

This does NOT mean that at age 3, we can already tell whether you are going to succeed or fail. This means that what you experience or not experience in childhood will grow and shape the parts of your inner self – the parts that you would basically count on to deal with growing up. These parts or brain regions have to do with being aware of your emotions and thus having better control of them (amygdala, cingulate cortex, caudate), your sense of rewards (insula), and your memory performance (hippocampus). Lower volumes, simply put, are associated with being less equipped to deal with these crucial aspects of maturing.

A study that came out September 2019 aimed to find a relationship between the support one gets in childhood and these brain regions. It was a 15-year study that tracked over 200 children from pre-school to adolescence. They did a total of 5 brain scans on these individuals, mainly looking at the size (volume) of these brain regions. They examined how the sizes of these brain regions are associated with the level of “bad” childhood experiences children had and the maternal support they received and whether this support was received during preschool or at school age. We can distill their findings into 3 main insights:

1.  If a child had really bad, perhaps traumatic pre-school experiences, these could spell “smaller” brain regions for her or him in early adolescence and early adulthood. But bad experiences in school-age children were associated only with changes in the volume of the insula. This suggests that adverse pre-school experiences have a greater hold on more brain regions than those experienced at school-age. 

2. If a child had strong support, particularly maternal, at pre-school, these could make for a “bigger” hippocampus and caudate while school-age maternal support was associated with a “bigger” insula, hippocampus, and amygdala. But maternal support only seems to be linked with a “bigger” hippocampus and amygdala only when the bad childhood experiences are minimal. This means that childhood trauma would require a tremendous amount of support, other than maternal, to overcome. 

3. For the brain region known for processing rewards and risks for mood disorders, the caudate, if a child had fewer adverse childhood experiences and greater pre-school maternal support, this could help her or him have a “bigger” caudate. But greater adverse childhood experiences were linked to “smaller” caudates regardless of the level of maternal support.  

While it is no longer news that your adulthood is laid out in large and defining parts, we are now just learning of the timing that may be required in interventions in the lives of children who are at risk of endangering their very brains. It seems that pre-school, the age of the great wiring, is the time where you can help shape not just the wiring but the “size” of the brain regions of the child for her or his maturity. 

It is also most disconcerting to confirm from the study that traumatic childhood experiences, especially in pre-school, can stunt children’s brains in ways that would be most difficult to overcome. This is why children should be treated as not just the children of their biological parents, who may or may not be fit to raise their own children. The whole village, so to speak, should raise her or him so that if the biological parents are unfit, others can step in and help. 

Children, all children, as none of them have any say in being here, should have fair chances to grow and flourish or, at the very least, be free from adverse experiences which could define them for the rest of their lives. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.