Protecting Children From Toxic StressBy DAVID BORNSTEIN
Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
Children can be shielded from the most damaging effects of stress if their parents are taught how to respond appropriately.Well, there is such a thing, but it’s not a substance. It’s been called “toxic stress.” For more than a decade, researchers have understood that frequent or continual stress on young children who lack adequate protection and support from adults, is strongly associated with increases in the risks of lifelong health and social problems, including all those listed above.
In the late 1990s, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda conducted a landmark study that examined the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — including abuse, neglect, domestic violence and family dysfunction — on 17,000 mainly white, predominately well-educated, middle class people in San Diego. They found a powerful connection between the level of adversity faced and the incidence of many health and social problems. They also discovered that ACEs were more common than they had expected. (About 40 percent of respondents reported two or more ACEs, and 25 percent reported three or more.) Since then, similar surveys have been conducted in several states, with consistent findings.
In the years since, advances in biology, neuroscience, epigenetics and other fields have shed light on the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. “What the science is telling us now is how experience gets into the brain as it’s developing its basic architecture and how it gets into the cardiovascular system and the immune system,” explains Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, where the term toxic stress was coined. “These insights provide an opportunity to think about new ways we might try to reduce the academic achievement gap and health disparities — and not just do the same old things.”
First, it’s important to note that toxic stress is not a determinant, but a risk factor. And while prevention is best, it’s never too late to mitigate its effects. It’s also critical to distinguish between “toxic stress” and normal stress. In the context of a reasonably safe environment where children have protective relationships with adults, Shonkoff explains, childhood stress is not a problem. In fact, it promotes healthy growth, coping skills and resilience. It becomes harmful when it is prolonged and when adults do not interact in ways that make children feel safe and emotionally connected.