Young Children Show High Levels of Physiological Stress after Witnessing Paternal Arrest

My colleagues and I studied 41 families with young children who had a father in jail in jurisdictions that had not implemented model policies regarding safeguarding children during parental arrest. We found that children had higher cumulative stress hormone concentrations (measured in their hair) when they witnessed their father’s arrest. Children also showed a blunted stress reaction–which is considered highly abnormal– when they witnessed the arrest and also had high levels of ongoing behavioral stress symptoms, similar to findings in Post‐Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) studies. A blunted stress reaction means that children experience so much chronic or toxic stress that their bodies no longer respond to even every day stressors in a normal way, which is very concerning.

Long‐term exposure to stress can have negative effects on children’s brain development. It can actually change the structure of the developing brain. Such chronic stress also further increases risk for problems in child development. The study provides evidence that stress processes are an underlying mechanism linking a father’s incarceration to child development. A recent review showed that when children experience parental incarceration when they are very young, they show more negative effects such as problems with their behavior, health, and academics. The review also found evidence that the negative effects of early parental incarceration were magnified as children grew older. The current study helps explain such findings by showing effects on children’s ability to respond to stress over time.

It is critical for law enforcement to safeguard children during parental arrest to help prevent such stress.

See the published study here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dev.22113

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