You take steps every day to ensure your child is happy, healthy, and thriving. But how much do you know about toxic stress and how to prevent your child from experiencing it? Unfortunately, many parents are unaware of what toxic stress is and how it can negatively affect the well-being of their children. Here’s what you need to know.
What is toxic stress?
Toxic stress is an ongoing state of stress that can be harmful to a child’s well-being and development. It’s not the same as regular everyday stress (like going to preschool for the first time or losing a toy). It is caused by continuous exposure to extremely difficult or even traumatic experiences without support systems in place to help children cope in a healthy way.
When children face a difficult situation, they release hormones that send messages to their bodies to help them prepare to face the stressor. However, if a child experiences ongoing stress without adequate support from a parent or caregiver to protect them and help them cope, the stress hormones can build up in their bodies and turn into toxic stress, which can have lasting physical and mental effects.
Another way to think about how toxic stress impacts the body is to compare it to overwatering a plant. When plants receive the right amount of water, they grow and flourish. However, if they are drenched with water every single day, they will eventually become flooded and experience adverse health effects. When the stress response system is constantly activated, the hormones that are supposed to help in emergencies can become too much for the body to handle, leading to negative health impacts.
What causes toxic stress?
Some common causes for children can include:
Events like the incarceration of a parent, an extremely difficult divorce, or the sudden loss of a close loved one.
Continued verbal, mental, or physical abuse over time.
When a child lacks a sense of safety and security for a long period, such as living in an unstable or unpredictable environment, toxic stress can build up in their bodies.
Santi Nuñez / Stocksy United
How can parents protect their children from toxic stress
1. Create stability and security in your home
When parents establish a safe and stable home environment, it gives children a sense of security. By setting and maintaining clear boundaries, creating predictable routines, and providing a consistent and loving home, your child can feel safe and less likely to experience ongoing stress.
2. Build a positive relationship with your child
Positive and supportive relationships with parents, caregivers, and other trusted adults are crucial for children’s well-being. These relationships provide emotional support, encouragement, and a safe space to share feelings and experiences. When children feel connected and loved, it helps buffer the impact of stress and promotes healthy development. Spend quality time together. Show affection through hugs and cuddles, expressing your love, and doing activities to build a bond with your child. Do your best to encourage your child to share their feelings and emotions with you and actively listen to what they say.
3. Help them learn how to bounce back from challenges
Parents can help their children build resilience or learn how to bounce back from challenges by encouraging problem-solving skills, teaching them how to manage emotions, and promoting a growth mindset. When children develop resilience, they become better equipped to handle stressful situations and setbacks, which can reduce the likelihood of developing toxic stress.
4. Teach them stress management skills
You can help your child manage their emotions and stress in healthy ways. Here’s how:
5. Seek professional help when needed
If you notice signs of significant stress or your child is struggling with their emotions, contact a pediatrician, therapist, or counselor who can provide guidance and support tailored to your child’s needs.
Toxic stress can have a big impact on a child’s well-being, but as parents, you have the power to protect your child from its effects and help them have a stronger start. Learn more.
Jackie Thu-Huong Wong is an experienced public policy and program leader with a demonstrated history of working in government, education, and non-profit management industry. She is a strong business development professional skilled in public sector and nonprofit organizations, program evaluation, curriculum development, public speaking, and program development.
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