Prevalence of Risk Factors Can Cause Toxic Stress in Young Children

The early childhood years – from the prenatal period to age six – lay the foundation for later economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and a lifetime of sound mental health, cognitive development, and physical health. Scientific research on early brain development clearly indicates that high risk environments of extreme poverty, maternal depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and other factors lead to levels of stress that can be toxic to the young, developing brain.

Without the buffering effect of strong, nurturing relationships, children can suffer profound, long term damage, permanently altering brain architecture and resulting in decreased learning, behavioral and emotional problems, and poor health extending well into adulthood. This is well documented by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The surrounding environments of young children directly impact their development and well-being. Poverty, trauma, maternal depression, abuse and neglect, and other negative conditions often result in permanent imprints on a young child’s developing brain and can have lifelong effects. Current data illustrates the risks to our most vulnerable children.


There are nearly 24 million young children under age 6 years in the United States.

  • 48% -11.1 million - live in low-income families. (Low-income families are defined as those earning below 200% of the federal poverty threshold.)
  • 25% - 5.7 million - live in poor families, those earning below 100% of the federal poverty threshold. (In 2013 the threshold was $23,624 for a family of four with two children.)

Poverty is the cause of compounded stress within families, resulting in children that suffer compromised health, academic and overall wellness outcomes.[1]


  • As many as one in four infants and toddlers are estimated to experience potentially traumatic events.
  • The impact of these stressors causes major disruption in self-regulation, executive functioning, cognition, and social-emotional development, critical for school readiness and academic success.[2]

Maternal Depression

  • About 12% of all women report depressive symptoms annually. For low-income women, it is estimated to be at least 25%.

  • Low-income mothers of young children and pregnant and parenting teens report depressive symptoms in the 40 to 60% range. This rate is consistent across ethnic and linguistic communities.[3]

Abuse and Neglect

“Research indicates that half of children involved with the child welfare system have clinically significant behavioral or emotional problems, but only about a quarter are getting mental health services.”[4]

  • In 2012, U.S. state and local child protective services (CPS),estimated that 686,000 children (9.2 per 1,000) were victims of maltreatment.[5]

  • 27% of victims were younger than 3 years, 20% of victims were age 3-5 years, with children younger than 1 year having the highest rate of victimization (21.9 per 1,000 children).[6]

Other Risk Factors


The impact of homelessness on children often leads to chronic stress and trauma from frequent moves, inconsistent relationships, lack of places to play, and witnessing domestic violence and substance abuse. This stress and trauma can be emotionally and cognitively damaging.[7]

  • One in 30 children experience homelessness in America each year. That's 2,483,539 equals children who experienced homelessness in the U.S. in 2013.[8]

Domestic Violence

Intimate partner violence is pervasive in U.S. society.

  • A national suvey of 8,000 men and 8,000 women from the U.S. revealed that approximately 1.5 million women and 834,732 men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.[9]

  • 15.5 million U.S. children live in families in which partner violence occurred at least once in the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred.[10]

[1] Yang, J., Ekono, M., & Skinner, C.(2015, January).  Basic Facts About Low-Income Children: Children under 6 Years, 2013. National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from

[2] Briggs-Gowan, M., Ford, J., Fraleigh, L., McCarthy, K., & Carter, A. (2010, December). Prevalence of exposure to potentially traumatic events in a healthy birth cohort of very young children in the northeastern United States. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23:6, 725-733.

[3] Knitzer, J., Theberge, S., & Johnson, K. (2008, January). Reducing Maternal Depression and Its Impact on Young Children: Toward a Responsive Early Childhood Policy Framework. National Center for Children in Poverty Issue Brief. Retrieved January 26, 2012 from

[4] CLASP. Pathways to Good Jobs: Child Welfare, Retrieved February 17, 2015, from

[5] Center for Desease Control and Prevention (CDC). Child Maltreatment, Facts at a Glance 2014. Retrieved May 5, 2015 from

[6] Ibid.

[7] Horizon for Homeless Children, Impact of Homelessness on Children. Retrieved February 17, 2015 from

[8] Bassuk, E., et al. (2014, November). America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness. American Institute for Research, National Center On Family Homelessness. Retrieved February 17, 2015 from

[9] Tjaden, P & Thoennes, N. (2000, July). Extent Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. Retrieved February 25, 2015 from

[10] McDonald, R., et al. (2006). As quoted in Futures Without Violence: The Facts on Children and Domestic Violence, and Estimating the Number of American Children Living in Partner-Violent Families. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1): 137-142.