Stress is a part of everyday life, for adults and kids. In a basic definition, stress is the result of a perceived or actual event that causes your body to physiologically react to meet a challenge. In this article we will talk about the different kinds of stress, how you can tell if your child is experiencing toxic stress and how you can help your child cope with their stress. While this article is geared toward children, it holds true for adults as well so we encourage you to read it with both yourself and your child in mind.
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How Our Body Reacts to Stress
An important starting point for talking about stress is an acknowledgment that everyone perceives stress differently, but all bodies react to stress in the same way. What does that mean?
It means, giving a work presentation may make you feel like someone is trying to push you off a cliff while your co-worker may actually leap at the chance to get up in front of a large group of people. The perception of the stress is different, but the body’s reaction to the stress of the event is the same for both of you. For example, both of your bodies will increase your heart rate, your senses will become sharper, your muscles tighten, etc. But once again, your perception may mean you experience these changes in your body as a sign that you feel completely overwhelmed where as your co-worker may perceive it as feeling completely jazzed.
So the bottom line is regardless of the event, and regardless of whether it is real or perceived, the same physiological response occurs in the body every time when the stress response is activated.
So what is happening?
When we start to feel stress, our body releases a natural hormone called cortisol, aka the stress hormone. Cortisol increases blood sugar, which the brain needs in order to solve the stressful situation and maintain energy for your muscles in case you need to move your body fast. But the triggering of cortisol does some other things that are not so obvious, like blocking growth, reproduction, sleep and immune functions. In little spurts, that’s fine. An event or perceived event occurs, our body turns on the stress response to handle the event, the event concludes, our body turns off the stress response and things go back to normal.
That’s the way the body is designed to work. But problems occur when there are too many stressful events or our stress response system gets stuck in the ‘on all the time’ position. Having a stress response on all the time can result in something called toxic stress, which can have devastating effects, especially in children.
So what is toxic stress, how do I know if my child is experiencing it and what can I do to stop it? To get to these answers we first need to talk about the different kinds of stress that we experience.
The 3 Different Types of Stress
There are 3 different kinds of stress.
1. Positive stress - Think of this as pregame jitters or when you actually need to save your life. Your body is physiologically trying to get you ready to perform the way you need to. This stress is viewed as both health and necessary.
2. Tolerable stress – This is triggered when a bigger or longer lasting stressor has occurred. For kids, this kind of stress is often a result of things like divorce, loss of a loved one, sustaining a major injury or living through a natural disaster. It can lead to some regression in behaviors or intense behaviors from kids, but over time children are able to recover. The key to keeping a large stressor in the tolerable stress zone is the child’s access to supportive adult relationships that help the child process and adapt to the event that has occurred. Through supportive relationships that help the child cope, the child can eventually stop their stress response and bring their body back into regulation, although it should be noted this can take a long time depending on the stressor and the individual child.
3. Toxic Stress – When the stress response is triggered too frequently, if the stressor is too intense, or the stressor is prolonged for long periods of time the body loses it’s ability to shut down the stress response. This leads to a disruption in the development of the child’s brain and other organ systems. Toxic stress, when it is not healed with supportive relationships and therapy, can lead to chronic physical and mental illness, learning and behavior problems, obesity, and even early death.
Because the consequences for toxic stress are so serious it is important to really understand how stress becomes toxic and how to prevent against it as well as heal from it. Let’s dive a little deeper into how toxic stress is different than healthy and tolerable stress.
First a little more about the biology behind stress. In any stress response, for any person, the body takes over. It’s part of an automatic survival response kicked off in the brain to help keep us alive. But what most people don’t realize is that this automatic biological response to stress, which is triggered for any stressful event, even if our life is not actually in danger, helps by actually hijacking our brain and behavior, meaning we are no longer fully in control when our body is in a stress response. The plane is on autopilot. The stress response temporarily gears certain things up and shuts other things down so that the body can respond to the threat automatically by fighting, fleeing or freezing.
Normally, a child’s body is able to turn off its stress response after a stressful event has passed when they are dealing with positive or tolerable stress. However, when a child is dealing with toxic stress, their body loses the ability to turn off its stress response. It is like the pilot trying to take back over, but none of the buttons on the plane are working so the autopilot stays on and the pilot doesn't know how to get back in control to land the plane.
What Toxic Stress Does to a Child
So what does toxic stress do to a child, or an adult for that matter?
Because children are still growing and developing and they lack coping techniques which are learned as one grows, they are especially sensitive to intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation. This intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation can turn into toxic stress when there is no supportive adult relationship to help buffer against these stressors.
Supportive adults are able to provide a safe listening space and comfort for big, strong emotions. They can also help teach coping techniques, provide reassurance to the child and help when needed. When a child is unable to receive the support and help needed for dealing with stressors that are too intense or frequent the child moves from tolerable stress to toxic stress.
Toxic stress can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn and their memory. It also causes the brain to start sending false alarms to other parts of the brain, indicating there is stress or something scary even when there is not. This can appear as children responding with huge and intense reactions to small or non-existent stressors. It can also appear as laziness or inattentiveness in the school environment.
Toxic stress can also cause too much adrenaline to be released into the brain which can increase a child’s anxiety, create sleeping problems, interfere with a child’s ability to control impulses and make a child more aggressive. This can appear as children being labeled as defiant, aggressive or having ADHD.
The physiological changes produced by stress also lead kids to crave sugar and high fat foods because the brain is no longer accurately recognizing the body’s built in ‘feel good’ response known as dopamine. The craving of sugar and fat is a maladaptive coping strategy to try to make themselves feel better. This inability to accurately experience dopamine can also lead to an increase in risky behavior in children who are craving a rush of excitement, in order to counteract the muted ‘feel good’ response. This can appear as impulsivity, risky behavior and poor eating habits, food hoarding or obesity.
How to Know if Your Child is Suffering From Toxic Stress
So how do you know if your child is struggling with toxic stress rather than tolerable stress?
If your child is displaying any of the above behaviors it is worth investigating if something is going on in their life that is causing stress for a prolonged or intense period of time.
There is also a growing field of work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which layout the 10 most common stressors in a child’s life that can cause toxic stress (listed below). It is important to note, that having one or more of these ACEs is not a guarantee that your child is experiencing toxic stress, it really depends on the support system in place for the child to help them deal with their stress. However it is equally as important to note that the more ACEs a child has, the more likely they are to suffer from the negative effects of toxic stress.
1. Emotionally abused in the household
2. Physically abused in the household
3. Sexually abused
4. Emotionally neglected
5. Physically neglected
6. Parents are separated or divorced
7. Witnessed abuse to a maternal figure
8. Lived in a household with someone who had alcohol or chemical dependency
9. Depression or mental illness in the household
10. Someone in the household was incarcerated
In addition to the 10 ACEs listed above, it must be acknowledged that this list is not complete. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) often face more adversity in life due to systemic racism and other challenges. There are more threats and stressors on a daily basis for BIPOC and their children are often exposed to stressors at an earlier age and higher rate than white children. Additionally, due to systemic racism and other adversities, BIPOC often have inherited the effects of toxic stress from previous generations. Recognizing this, additional adversity challenges are also acknowledged as causes of toxic stress.
Additional Adversity Challenges
4. Food and housing insecurity
5. Interpersonal and community violence
7. Death of a family member
8. Historical trauma
9. Growing up in foster care
10. Justice system involvement
Furthermore, it is important to remember that your child can experience toxic stress from any traumatic event, even if it is not listed above. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that causes an overwhelming amount of stress. It can be caused by one or many experiences.
How to Help Your Child Prevent Against or Heal From Toxic Stress
So what can you do to keep your child in the positive and tolerable stress areas? How can you help protect your child from the effects of toxic stress even if they have ACEs or additional adversity challenges?
First, if your child has a history of toxic stress or a high ACE score it is important to get them into therapy as studies have shown that psychotherapy is a well supported intervention. Therapy can help a child re-regulate themselves and start the healing process. Go to our Community Organizations and Resources article to find recommended therapists and support services in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
You can also reach out to us if you need help finding a therapist that can fit you and your child’s needs. The earlier the intervention the better because you can start to reverse the negative effects caused by toxic stress and help provide more tools to your child for future resiliency.
To help protect against toxic stress, the following steps can be taken by parents and caregivers to help a child stay in the healthy and tolerable stress zones.
1. Comfort your child. Show them love and affection. Studies have shown that simple physical affection between a parent or caregiver and a child after a traumatic experience can help regulate the child’s body and stress response.
2. Have conversations about how trauma is affecting them and their families. These conversations can occur even when the child is very young. Children have a need to organize their world and give meaning to the events that occur in their lives. When no one is there to talk with to help organize these big thoughts and emotions, children make up an explanation, which often leads a child to think “I made this happen”. This can breed anxiety and fear leading to an over activated stress response and toxic stress. It is important for a child to hear from a parent or caregiver that they are not to blame for stressful events occurring.
3. If you have a history of trauma, seek help for yourself. A parent’s own history with trauma can hinder their ability to act as a protective buffer to their child’s toxic stress. Self-care and healing are essential for being able to help a child who is stuck in a stress response.
4. Practice mindfulness, with or without your child. Mindfulness studies have shown to be very effective at reducing stress and helping to regulate the body. It has been further shown that a child benefits from mindfulness even if only the parent is practicing.
5. Help your child get exercise every day. It is important to get the body moving by doing some kind of moderate exercise like walking. It has been proven that exercise can both benefit learning and memory functions and help regulate the stress response. For combating toxic stress it is important to get the heart rate up for an hour every day.
6. Help your child get more sleep. While this is challenging when a child is experiencing toxic stress because physiologically the body is interrupting the sleep function in the body, maintaining a consistent bedtime, eliminating electronics at least an hour before bedtime and creating a chance at connection before bedtime with stories, songs or cuddles can help facilitate sleep.
7. Promote eating healthy. Again, this can be a tough one because the body is working against you because of the muted dopamine receptors, but trying to help your child make good food choices that will reduce fat and sugar and promote protein, fruits and vegetables will help stabilize their blood sugar levels and help them to regulate their bodies better.
8. Help to identify triggers to proactively address the stress response. Once you know your child’s source of stress and have talked about how the stress affects them, you can help teach them coping techniques for handling their stress. These coping techniques can be a hug, deep breathing or drawing, to name a few.
9. Practice self-care. As a parent to a child that is stuck in a stress response life can feel overwhelming and unpredictable. While our hearts want to remove the pain our child is suffering from, it is important to remember to take care of yourself at the same time. Take breaks and recognize if your child is triggering your own stress response.
A Message For Hope
While parents and caregivers can help strengthen their ability to act as a supportive buffer to their child, sometimes the adversity a child is experiencing cannot be reduced. Poverty, racism, community violence and other societal challenges can cause parents to feel powerless to protect their children. However, there is significant research showing just how powerful a supportive parent or caregiver can be at reducing the short and long-term effects of toxic stress.
The brain is an amazing organ and intervening when a child is under the age of 18, when their brain is still very plastic, provides the potential for significant change to occur. Also, adversity can foster several good outcomes such as resiliency, perseverance and a deepening of empathy and compassion.
If you'd like to talk more about toxic stress and trauma as it relates to your child or how you can find support as a parent, we invite you to reach out and have a conversation with us.