No parent wants their child to experience adversity. Adversity as a part of healthy development seems counterintuitive, but learning to cope with stress is paramount in an unpredictable world.
Stress is natural, and exposure helps train the brain and the body. When confronted with stressful situations, your little one's body undergoes several physiological changes. Their heart races, breathing quickens, blood pressure rises, and stress hormones rush into their system to prepare their body against a perceived or real threat.
The child's system tempers physiological symptoms in a healthy and supportive environment. The body's quick recovery limits the potential for sustained damage or progressive tension. Without support, stress can escalate to a toxic level, leading to pervasive symptoms and developmental and health problems.
How Do You Define Toxic Stress?
The body's stress response occurs in three escalating intervals: positive, tolerable, and toxic. A positive response occurs with routine nervousness, like that experienced before a doctor's appointment. Positive stress offers a quick recovery and is essential to healthy development.
Tolerable stress reactions are more severe than positive ones, but a child can weather the symptoms healthily in a supportive environment. Stressors like losing a loved one or a physical injury can trigger a tolerable stress response.
A toxic response occurs when stress is constantly in a child's life. Frequent, prolonged adversity without adequate support is a common characteristic of toxic stress. The body's stress responses go uninhibited, especially in a young child, affecting development and health. Without capable support and disruption to stressor patterns, a child is at risk of several long-term and adverse psychological and physiological symptoms, including:
- Cognitive impairment
- Mental illness
- Physical disease
- Maladaptive coping skills
- Unhealthy lifestyles
What Are the Signs of Toxic Stress in Children?
Aside from the typical symptoms of stress — increased heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure — toxic stress can lead to several long-term or progressive symptoms. Some of the most common signs of toxic stress in children are:
- Nightmares and other sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Trouble focusing, remembering, or concentrating
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Negative thoughts about themselves, the future, or life in general
- Irritability, anxiety, or mood swings
- Destructive behavior
Common Sources of Childhood Toxic Stress
Unlike positive and tolerable stress, the sources of toxic stress are more volatile and negligent. While violence is not a necessary precursor to toxic stress, it can play a role. The most common causes or sources of toxic stress responses include:
- Chronic neglect
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Caregiver substance abuse
- Caregiver mental illness
- Family economic hardship
- Exposure to violence
How To Prevent Toxic Stress?
Toxic stress responses occur in unhealthy environments, ones lacking a structured and healthy support system. A support system includes community, peer groups, and positive adult influences.
The best way to prevent toxic stress is to develop a stable and nurturing environment for your little ones. If there are any current harmful or abusive influences in your child's life, eliminate them.
How To Treat Toxic Stress?
Treatments are likely ongoing for children who experienced or still experience toxic stress. Some of the most common treatments for toxic stress include:
- Mental health counseling
- Relaxation techniques
- Community support and resources
- Physical health treatment
- Healthy and balanced nutrition
- Structured environments
Therapies treat underlying mental and physical trauma and establish positive self-awareness and healthy, goal-oriented peer groups. The one constant across all treatments is removing or eliminating the root stressors.
Adversity is necessary for healthy growth. Most children will experience positive and tolerable stress, but toxic stress is extreme and uncommon in healthy households. To ensure healthy development, focus on positive reinforcement, play, socialization, and nutrition.