Helping Your Child Deal With Toxic Stress

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STRESS… a five letter word that we all deal with at some level and have to learn how manage throughout our lives. We know that stress is a silent killer and can cause lasting negative emotional and physical changes on us. However, stress is not created equally and it is important to understand the different types of  responses our bodies have in dealing with stress and ways to prevent stress from becoming toxic and long-lived.

When a child says that they are afraid of giving a presentation in front of the classroom to their peers versus being scared to go to school for fear of being bullied, those are two different kinds of stressors — the former being considered “normal and healthy” and the latter “abnormal and potentially debilitating.”

A child is especially susceptible to the negative effects of prolonged stress. This blog focuses on the following three aspects related to stress and its impact on children:

  • Understanding the main types of stress responses
  • Examining how each response can affect a child’s overall well-being
  • What can be done to help prevent toxic stress

Three Main Types of Stress Responses

Positive stress response – Let’s say your child is about to play piano in a musical performance in a few hours.  The anticipation leading up to that event can produce an increase in heart rate and a mild increase in stress hormone levels. These feelings are completely normal and essential for healthy development.

Tolerable stress response – When a child experiences a more serious event, such as the loss of a loved one or a serious bodily injury, the body’s nervous system is activated to a greater degree and stress levels rise. With support from close adults, the effects from the stressful situation or event will subside and the body will recover back to its normal state.

Toxic stress response – Recurring, prolonged, long-lasting stressful events, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, substance abuse, exposure to violence or mental illness without consistent, adequate adult support, can lead to significant disruptions in brain development and other organ systems. These effects include developmental delays, cognitive impairment, and stress-related diseases throughout adulthood.

Ways to Help Prevent Toxic Stress

Here are some ways to help prevent the effects of toxic stress from impacting your child:

Have a Support System for Your Child

The importance of a support system is paramount for a child overcoming the effects of stress. We see that toxic stress can affect children in different ways. Kids need a safe place to turn to where they feel protected, reassured, and supported both emotionally and physically.

Remove Chronic Stress

Remove the chronic stressor(s) or adverse situation from your child’s life as soon as possible.  I have worked with children and their families that have endured extreme poverty, food scarcity, neglect, abuse, and/or violence in the home. Research has shown that toxic stress can harm the brain and other organ systems of these children at any point in development. However, when the events happen early on in a child’s life, they have more of a profound and lasting impact. These adverse effects may not become apparent until adulthood.1

Teach Children Resiliency

The ability to properly cope with and adapt to adverse situations, despite the present conditions, plays a huge role in dealing with toxic stress. Research has shown that children with higher resilience have higher IQ scores, well-balanced temperaments and self-control, positive self-concept, greater empathy, and problem-solving skills.2

Engage a Child in Healthy Response Outlets

Again, all children react differently to stress. The variety of stress that children deal with on a daily basis varies. Students that I’ve taught, mentored and coached over the years who had poor social support from their primary caregivers and/or their peers and suffered from prolonged stress developed maladaptive behaviors in response to this stress. The fundamental principle in handling stress is having an effective outlet to release it. Some children release stress most effectively by engaging in different physical activities, such as sports, karate, dancing, etc. Others go within and express their feelings through writing or drawing.

One universal tool that I use in the classroom with my students is mindful relaxation response techniques. Conscious efforts to breathe deeply and slowly help slow down heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and decrease stress hormone levels. Guided imagery about positive outcomes to potentially stressful events is another technique I use to help children deal with anxious or stressful situations.

Developing coping mechanisms for stress take time and regular practice. A consistent implementation of these techniques in safe environments help produce the best sustainability for a long-lasting positive outcome for helping a child best handle stress.

Talk to Your Child’s Pediatrician

Your child’s pediatrician can be an excellent resource for meeting not only your child’s needs, but the needs of you and each family member’s in order to adequately structure an environment conducive for your child’s overall physical and emotional growth and well-being.

In my best-selling book, The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens, I discuss ways to help your child develop the skills necessary to effectively handle different types of stress and challenges in their life so they can thrive in all they do and fulfill their greatest potential.

To Detoxing From the Stress of You and Your Child’s Worlds!

Sources:

1. “Stress.” Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, Accessed July 9, 2018, www.albertafamilywellness.org/what-we-know/stress.

 

2. Cowen E.L., Wyman P.A., Work W.C. Resilience in highly stressed urban children: concepts and findings. Bull. N. Y. Acad. Med. 1996;73:267–284.

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