Toxic Stress and Development in Children

What is the toxic stress reaction?
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, defines the toxic stress response as—“ occurring when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.” Harvard Developing Child

Neuroscience teaches us that prenatal to the first year of life, important brain developments are occurring. During this time, healthy adult interactions, stability, nurturance and predictability help to create healthy emotional and cognitive development. If these factors are absent for extended periods of time, brain development will be negatively impacted and toxic stress is likely to occur. Further, this stress will impact learning, behavior, social, and cognitive development. Nerve cells responsible for communication become compromised and the ability to respond to things appropriately becomes limited. This puts children at risk for depression, cardio vascular disease, frustration tolerance, emotional regulation. It is important to note that, early intervention is helpful in counteracting these negative effects. Parents, day care providers, therapists, doctors and educators can counterbalance toxic stress.
Toxic stress causes failure in neurons to develop properly. Why are neurons important? Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system. They are responsible for chemical and electric messages in the brain. It was once believed that we are born with a certain amount of neurons at birth but recent scientific discoveries have determined this not to be true. Neurons

The brain is shaped by experiences and is expecting to have these experiences that will help it to develop in healthy ways. When these experiences are disrupted by abuse, neglect, instability, stress, and learning, there is a devastating effect on the brain. The brain begins to lose its flexibility, electrical circuitry which all wears down the brain. Early development impacts almost everything else that comes in later life—learning, relationships, emotional regulation and so forth. This has lifelong consequences for the child. Science shows that toxic stress in children reduces neural connections in the brain.
The Stress Reaction
The stress reaction is a normal response to perceived or real threat. The body kicks into high gear, adrenaline starts to pump, heart rate increases and it becomes fight or flight time. Once the threat disappears or lessens, the body returns to its normal homeostasis. In young children, the stress response can be lessened by the attentiveness of a parent or guardian thus helping the body to quickly return to normal. When the child is unattended to during stressful times (abuse or prolonged neglect) and the stress response is allowed to stay at a heightened level, toxic stress begins to develop. Over time, this becomes permanent.
Overview of toxic stress:
• Body and brain go on high alert
• When the stress is relieved-the response declines and the body goes back to normal
• Abuse and neglect allow the stress response to stay activated therefore causing significant damage to neural connections.
• No response from a caring adult prolongs the stress response
• Repeated stress response weakens, overloads developing systems
• It thwarts normal development Areas of the brain for reasoning and coping becomes weakened.
• Environments need to be nurturing and stable to avoid toxic stress.

Counteracting Toxic Stress:
Responsive and caring adults play an important role in counteracting toxic stress. Adults who are charged with the care of children can assist in decreasing toxic stress. Parents can be taught about the importance of brain development and learn how to interact with their young children to decrease toxic stress. Parenting and nurturing does not always come naturally, but studies have shown that parents can be taught to practice and use nurturing skills.
Teachers can attend to child in compassionate and nurturing ways. Early childhood educational centers provide safe, stable environments and offer supportive services that help with the effects of toxic stress.

Social workers and other mental health professionals have the training and skills to work with children who suffer from toxic stress. Social workers have training to work with families in adversity. Additionally, with specialized training in trauma focused therapy, social workers have skills to help children with toxic stress. The unique perspective of understanding ‘the person in the environment’, is crucial in assessing children at greatest risk.
Teaching children mindfulness training is helpful to counteracting toxic stress. Mindfulness is focused attention to internal and external experiences as they are occurring. Mindfulness has been used in the treatment of stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, chronic pain and many other chronic conditions. This recent study shows how after a short lesson in mindfulness training improved the concentration of children. Mindfulness Study