Last year, Velma Chaney and her fiancé moved to Seattle from Mississippi with their three young children in search of a stronger job market. Her sister and nephew came too.
They had $5,000 from Chaney’s tax refund, which they figure would easily hold them off until they found work.
“But it didn’t happen like that,” Velma said. “Once we were putting in applications and everything, and we weren’t really getting responses back, the money started getting thin, and eventually it was gone.”
The following months were stressful – not just for her, but for the children. Her 5-year-old wasn’t the same kid anymore. He wanted to be babied. Her 3-year-old wasn’t talking yet and refused to be potty-trained.
Certain childhood stressors – from family strife to violence – can do permanent damage to growing brains. It’s known as toxic stress, and it’s especially prevalent in low-income families. Chaney watched how that stress affected her kids as they bounced from one living situation to another.
At first, she got her family on every waiting list for emergency housing she could find. With time running out, they realized there was only one option left: the Seattle tent city called Nickelsville.
But when she called the camp, the staff said they weren’t sure they could fit a family of five. Chaney remembers that day.
“We had went to the park out there in Kent and we were sitting and it was just sad because we really hadn’t eaten and we were sitting on the bleachers, we didn’t have nothing,” she said. “We just didn’t have nowhere to go.”
Eventually, Nickelsville called back to say there was space for Chaney’s family. Chaney told her kids they were going camping.
The kids didn’t buy it.
“I saw a lot of anger because they started lashing out … I saw a lot of withdrawal where they were holding things back,” Chaney said. “They started lying to me and stuff like that, so it was kinda a spiral.”
Laderrion, her 5-year-old, “just reverted backwards,” she said. “When it came to him being independent, he became more dependent.”
As for her youngest: “Ladamion, I would try to potty-train him. And just when I thought I was one step further to getting him where I needed him, I would have to start all over. I would have to go back to the diapers when I thought I was in the Pull-Ups stage.”
Lia’daya, Chaney’s daughter, noticed her little brother’s problems, too.
“He wasn’t really talking, because he had a speech problem, and the speech problem was really bad for him.”
Kate McLaughlin, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, said that language development is consistently impacted by tough environments. She said traumatic experiences like homelessness can do more than just rattle children in the short term.
McLaughlin’s research examines how the fear and anxiety from toxic stress can actually change the structure of the brain.
They can shrink areas of the brain that children need to succeed in school, like the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
Everything from divorce in the family to exposure to neighborhood violence can impair early brain development.
“There’s a couple of things that we tend to see,” McLaughlin said. “The first is problems with these kinds of executive functioning skills – so difficulty concentrating in school, problems with working memory, being able to inhibit certain behaviors in order to pay attention in the classroom.”
She said early exposure to violence can make children vigilant to potential dangers. And that can disrupt their ability to adapt to change in the classroom.
Although traumatic events can happen in families rich or poor, there’s evidence that the stresses of poverty alone can be enough to rewire young brains.
Stresses like not having enough to eat, frequent moves and financial instability.
Other trauma is more common in poor families, as well – like a family member going to prison, domestic violence, and drug abuse.
The good news, McLaughlin says, is that children’s brains are remarkably plastic.
“Positive inputs can have just as meaningful an impact on brain development in children,” she said.
That’s the work of Wellspring Family Services in Seattle, which serves homeless children in its early learning center.
Sandy Lowe, vice president of community services for Wellspring, says therapists and teachers have little control over children’s home environments. But they can work together to help children build their coping skills.
She recalls one young boy who always came to school angry.
“He shared with the mental health therapist that he always felt like he was burning inside, like there was fire inside of him and he had to roar and rage around and get rid of the fire,” she said.
“And they talked about what puts fire out – well, water puts fire out. Maybe drinking a glass of water would be good when he felt that way.”
Pretty soon, when the boy found himself getting hot under the collar, he’d ask for a drink of water: “He would take a time out at the sink, he would drink his water, and he would go back to his classmates and say, ‘The fire’s gone.’”
Wellspring also focuses on the developmental delays that childhood traumas can cause or exacerbate.
The center is where Velma Chaney’s two sons started to get back on track – including 3-year-old Ladamion, who was barely talking when he started there.
“That was my baby that grunted and pointed for a long time,” Chaney said.
Eight-year-old Lia’daya remembers her brother’s transformation as he worked with Wellspring speech therapists.
“They was, like, saying stuff, and they was making him say it after them, and that was really helping him,” she said. “First he was kinda messed up on the first time he had did it, and then he started getting better and better. That was kinda nice.”
Lia’daya says she’s had challenges of her own.
“I was a little messed up on the reading,” she said. “I feel that I’m doing a lot better since I have growed up.”
Velma Chaney’s family is now living in transitional housing.
The apartment is sparsely furnished, but it’s theirs for two years.
On a recent visit, Lia’daya and Laderrion sat on either side of their mother on the sofa, practicing their reading.
“His dog Bill barked and stared …”
“There you go.”
“… jumping in the air. The kids laughed.”
Early interventions can help children who’ve experienced toxic stress, but researchers say it’s still early days when it comes to understanding how the damage is done to developing brains – or to what degree that damage can be undone.