Chaos to a growing human can take many forms. Genetic abnormalities or missteps can occur in the womb. Unbalanced family systems created by divorce, violence in the home, incarceration by one or both parents, or poor parent mental health can affect parent-child attachment and thus how the child views himself as a person and as a part of the greater society. Poor environment, such as poverty and poor nutrition will also create stress that alters brain development. These stressors can manifest in the child as “depression, substance use disorders, personality and conduct disorders, ADHD, delinquency and anxiety” (Evans-Chase, 2014, p. 745).
Children involved in the juvenile justice system provide a wealth of examples in how chaos and stress can wreck havoc on brain growth and behavior. The stress of trauma has already affected the vast majority of youth in the system, compared to just a quarter of the children in the general population (Evans-Chase, 2014). One study found that this early exposure to trauma has a positive association with the occurrence and severity of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life (Crobo, Salata, Amick, Leritz, Milberg & McGlinchey, 2014). Evans-Chase (2014) describes part of the neurological process that occurs when a child experiences stress. The amygdala and limbic systems are continually activated, thus those pathways become myelinated and stronger while synapses to the frontal cortex are pruned and fall away. Even the speed of the myelination and pruning are affected (Cook, Ciorciari, Varker & Devilly, 2009). Stronger pathways process information more quickly. Self-regulation ability occurs in the frontal cortex, especially during late adolescence. These changes in brain processing in turn affect behavior. For example, increased dopamine levels increases the “wanting and reward seeking heavier in adolescents and a decrease in the impact or salience of a threat (of negative consequences)” (Evans-Chase, 2014, p.748). Not only does the biological effect of stress influence the way the child experiences the world, it also changes the way the world experiences the child.
Does the world experience stress the same way? Different cultures have different values, and personality traits that are encouraged or discouraged will vary. While the outward behaviors a culture perceives to be problematic will vary, the neurological effects of stress are the same around the world. Within any culture, the resilience of the child who experienced trauma largely depends on the environment (Ungar, 2013). How does the person, their family, and their surrounding community navigate the resources available? How accessible or meaningful are those resources? Does the person or family have an element of spirituality to draw from? “Religion and spirituality may promote resilience through…religious beliefs that give meaning to traumatic events and provide a close, supportive relationship with the Divine” (Brewer-Smyth & Koenig, 2014, p. 253). Resilience can also come from support from members of a faith community. People and families with an active spiritual life experience optimism, positive emotions, and meaning. When experiencing these feelings, participants in studies show a lower level of cortisol in response to a stressful task (Brewer-Smyth & Koenig, 2014). Our maker created in us the biological responses to our environment. Thru sin, the environment is wrought with peril as we, and those around us, make choices that keep us from experiencing the fruitfulness that He has planned for us (Jeremiah 29:11). When we look back to our maker, we find He has given us the tools to overcome the environment and provides a promise for a better tomorrow. John 16:33 (New International Version) tells us “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
From the moment of conception, the system of growth is extremely complex. With every step, the very process of change affects the change itself. The genetic codes we are created with determine the initial pathway, but the environment in which we grow takes us on twists and turns. Once born, our genetic coding, the environment we’re born into, and the environment we chose for ourselves will all influence who we become and how we experience this world. If our caregivers are healthy both physically and mentally, our path is easier to walk than if we come into the world with chaos. God created for us a perfect environment in which we could prosper, but Adam and Eve were influenced by something that altered the course of humanity. In His perfect wisdom, God also created for us a way to overcome.