Infants and young children exposed to “toxic stress” from dysfunctional homes are more likely to develop cardiac disease and other physical illnesses as adults, the family violence Royal Commission was told on Wednesday.
And addressing the impact of early childhood stress and trauma, the commission was told, was the most important economic investment Australia could make.
Frank Oberklaid, professor of paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, said there was now strong evidence linking “toxic”, or persistent, stress in early childhood and the later development of mental health problems, criminality, illiteracy, welfare dependency, family violence, cardiac disease and diabetes.
This, he said, was the “elephant in the room” of economic policy.
“I think from a public policy view we really haven’t embraced the fact that if we fix up those first three years, if we can provide the sort of support that families need, parents need, if we can have high quality early learning environments that’s the best economic investment that any country can make,” he said.
“So the real productivity issue is in building social infrastructure, it’s not only on getting women back into the workforce, for example. So that’s the elephant in the room. The academics appreciate that, the media are starting to understand that. We haven’t seen a consistent, sustained public policy response to that research evidence yet.”
Children’s brains, in the first three years of life, are busily developing circuits and connections, Professor Oberklaid said.
“The way those circuits develop is almost entirely dependent on getting necessary inputs from the environment at particular times…[and] that depends on a relatively stress-free environment.
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– Bianca Hall