Trauma During the Early Years

Three Kinds of Responses to Stress

Positive stress 

Positive stress results from adverse experiences that are short-lived and is characterized by brief activation of the body’s alert systems. Brief increases in heart rate and hormone levels are signs of positive stress. Children may experience positive stress when they attend a new school, visit the dentist or meet someone new. This type of stress is considered normal and coping with it is an important part of the development process.

Tolerable stress 

Tolerable stress refers to more intense adverse experiences that activate the body’s alert systems to a greater degree. Examples of tolerable stress include a frightening natural disaster or the death of a loved one. If the stress response is time-limited and buffered by relationships with caring adults who help the child adapt, the child’s brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.

Toxic stress

When a child experiences frequent and/or prolonged adversity without the support of caring adults, they can experience what is known as ‘toxic stress’. Toxic stress is the excessive activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. Toxic stress weakens the foundation of a child’s developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health. 

How Early Childhood Experiences Affect Lifelong Health 

Trauma and children in foster care

Every child in foster care has experienced trauma. Not only do they suffer trauma from the circumstances that led to foster care in the first place, but they also experience trauma when they are separated from their parents, community and culture. At any age, it is traumatic for a child when they are removed from their home, family, familiar faces and neighbourhood. It is widely accepted that skin-to-skin contact between parents and their babies has significant health benefits for the infant. Physical contact and proximity to their parents is therefore crucial during a child’s early years. Attachment theory suggests that emotional distress and later health problems can be attributed to early childhood disruption of the parent-child bonding process.

The goal of caregivers should be to restore a child’s sense of safety and comfort. When children temporarily cannot live with their own family, foster caregivers step in and create a safe, secure and nurturing environment that responds to the child’s individual needs. Fostering children means helping them maintain contact with their family, community and culture with a view to reunification with their families or permanency. By understanding trauma, foster parents can help support a child’s healing, the parent-child relationship, and their family. A child’s recovery from trauma rests on having a supportive caregiving system, access to support, and service systems that are trauma-informed.

BCFPA - childhood trauma
The 4 Rs of Trauma Informed Care

This figure is adapted from: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and Guidance for a trauma-informed approach. HHS publication no. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Quiz time!

Take this quick knowledge check about trauma and early childhood development.

Quiz (Early Years: Trauma)
True or False? Young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences.
True or False? Childhood trauma occurs when a child experiences an actual or threatened negative event, series of events, or set of circumstances that cause emotional pain and overwhelm the child’s ability to cope.
True or False? Significant maternal stress during pregnancy and poor maternal care affect a child's developing stress system.
True or False? Children are especially vulnerable to repeated stress activation during their early years as their brains and bodies are in a critical and sensitive period of development.
True or False? Not all stress is harmful. Stressful events can also be tolerable, or even helpful, depending on how much of a bodily stress response they provoke and how long the response lasts.
Stress responses activates a variety of hormone and neurochemical systems throughout the body. Which two hormones are produced by the body as a response to stress?
The prolonged activation of the stress response systems is called ___________.
True or False? The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and health problems later in life.
True or False? Learning how to cope with mild or moderate stress is an important part of healthy child development.
True or False? Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.


A guide to toxic stress. (2020, January 6). Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Bruskas, D. (2008). Children in Foster Care: a Vulnerable Population at Risk. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 21(2), 70-77.

Doyle, J. J. (2007). Child protection and child outcomes: Measuring the effects of foster care. The American Economic Review, 96(5 ), 1583-1610.

Isquith, P., Maerlender, A., Racusin, R., Sengupta, A., & Straus, M. (2005). Psychosocial Treatment of Children in Foster Care: A review. Community Mental Health Journal 41(2), 199-221.

Lawrence, C., Carlson, E., & Egeland, B. (2006). The impact of foster care on development. Development and Psychopathology, 18, 57-76.

Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents matter. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The power of showing up: How parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, P. H. D. T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.

What are ACEs? And how do they relate to toxic stress? (2020, October 30). Retrieved from



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