What is Toxic Stress - And How does it Effect our Children?
Updated: Sep 27
Childhood is meant to be a time of innocence, joy, and growth. However, for many children, their early years might be scarred by the silent but impactful presence of toxic stress. What is toxic stress in children?
Toxic stress refers to prolonged or repeated exposure to adverse experiences without adequate support from caring adults. This can have a profound impact on a child's physical, emotional, and cognitive development. In this article, we will explore the concept of toxic stress, its effects on children, and the strategies we can employ to limit its long-term consequences.
Understanding Toxic Stres
Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences ongoing or severe adversity, such as neglect, abuse, violence, or chronic poverty. This is compounded when there is no presence of a primary nurturing caregiver. This can also be seen in a dysfunctional co-parenting relationship that the child is exposed to. In counseling, this latter cause of dysfunctional co-parenting is the primary reason why children with toxic stress are seen in my office. The stress response system (think fight/flight & cortisol release), which is designed to protect us in threatening situations, becomes dysregulated in the face of prolonged stress combined with a lack of resources to mitigate that stress. This will disrupt the healthy development of a child's brain and body, leading to a wide range of short and long-term consequences.
What are effects of toxic stress?
Cognitive impairment - Brain structure itself will change, impairing memory and mood regulation
Behavioral changes - A dysfunctional "fight or flight" response and cortisol release
Physical health problems - Increase in blood pressure and inflammation
Mental health problems - Anxiety, depression, substance abuse
Toxic stress increases the risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and ADHD. The chronic activation of the stress response system can alter brain chemistry and structure, make them more susceptible to mental health challenges throughout their lives. Once again, we revisit the "fight or flight" response and cortisol release. This is a healthy and instinctual physiological response but it can also be debilitating if it is activated without a valid cause.
It is important to remember that the effects of toxic stress will vary depending on the severity, duration, and individual resilience of the child. Supportive relationships, interventions, and protective factors can help mitigate the impact of toxic stress and promote resilience in children, helping them overcome adversity and thrive despite challenging circumstances.
Addressing Toxic Stress
1. Building supportive relationships: Caring and responsive relationships with adults, such as parents, teachers, and mentors, are crucial to ease the effects of toxic stress. A single loving primary caregiver can often alleviate the anxiety response in children. The positive reinforcement to life's stressors given by a loving caregiver will teach the child they have the resources to handle any of life's challenges.
2. Creating safe and stable environments: Stable and predictable environments help reduce stress for children. Ensuring access to basic needs, such as food, shelter, and healthcare, is essential. This Maslow's hierarchy of needs. When basic needs are met, the fight or slight response will be able to calm down.
3. Enhancing resilience: Resilience acts as a protective factor against toxic stress. Promote the development of resilience by nurturing a child's strengths, fostering self-esteem, teaching coping skills, and promoting a growth mindset. Children with toxic stress often benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and the tools that therapeutic modality teaches.
4. Access to mental health support: Providing access to mental health services and counseling is crucial for children experiencing toxic stress. Professional intervention can help children process their experiences, develop coping strategies, and heal from trauma.
5. Grounding and mindfulness: Provide tools for the child to practice grounding and mindfulness. A great tool is to teach the child to tap into their senses. A simple rubber-band on the wrist to snap or a scented bracelet to induce the sense of smell can bring a child back to emotional regulation quicker.
In addition to the strategies mentioned above, it is important to promote a trauma-informed approach in all aspects of a child's life. This involves recognizing the prevalence and impact of trauma, understanding the unique needs of individuals who have experienced toxic stress, and adapting practices to create a safe and supportive environment. When we talk about toxic stress we are discussing an on-going trauma in the child's life. It must be treated as such.
Your child's teachers can be trained in trauma-informed practices, fostering a classroom environment that promotes emotional safety, understanding, and empathy. By implementing strategies such as mindfulness exercises, social-emotional learning programs, and positive behavior interventions, educators can support children in managing their emotions, building resilience, and improving academic outcomes. It is the parent's job to advocate for their children and make sure the environment at school is congruent with the environment that is best suited for their child.
It is important to recognize that addressing toxic stress is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each child's experiences and needs are unique, and interventions should be tailored accordingly. However, when we understand what the underlying causes are of toxic stress in children, we are better equipped to address the symptoms.
Toxic stress in children is a significant issue with far-reaching consequences and will last well into adulthood if left to run it's own course. By understanding its impact and implementing strategies to limit its effects, we can create a more nurturing and resilient environment for children to thrive. Through supportive relationships, stable environments, resilience-building practices, access to mental health support, and advocacy in the classroom, we can make a positive impact on the lives of our children affected by toxic stress. Lastly, if a primary cause of the toxic stress is due to a parent or a dysfunctional co-parenting dynamic, it is important for the parent's to take responsibility and seek counseling for themselves.
Matt Schubert is a child therapist in Nampa who operates Gem State Wellness serving all the communities of Idaho including Boise, Nampa, and Meridian. Matt specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy with children and adults.