What Is Toxic Stress and How Does It Affect Children?

by Creative Homes

“A supportive relationship with a caregiver contributes to the formation of resiliency skills against stress”.

– Bruce Perry, Founder, Child Trauma Academy

 

The environment that a child is raised in has direct and real implications on the quality of that child’s growth and development. A stressful, or chaotic, environment can have immediate effects on early development, whether that’s on his or her ability to effectively socialise and learn at school or on their general mental health. At worse, if the child undergoes prolonged periods of stress, it can have far reaching effects during their lifetime. This can subsequently causes a domino effect both socially and, it could be argued, on any future children of that generation. This means that intervening early to effectively combat stress in the home, before it reaches a toxic level, is critical to the healthy development of the individual and society at large.

Stress is a normal emotion to experience. We meet it throughout life and with varying degrees of severity; children are no different. Experiencing stress and learning to cope with it is an essential part of healthy child development; however, the child requires a safe and balanced environment to achieve this. When we encounter adversity, the body jumps into action and increases heart rate, blood pressure, and releases stress hormones into the body. These hormones allow the body to increase it’s ability to process energy sources, preparing you to deal with the issue you’re facing. However, if the stress response systems are triggered for prolonged periods of time, without proper resolution, this can have extremely adverse effects on the body. Without the proper environment and safety net of effective parenting, prolonged stress can weaken the body and damage the brain architecture; this can cause lifelong problems for the individual with regards to learning, behavior and physical and mental health.

the effects of toxic stress on brain development

Stess is particularly damaging to a child’s brain. During our first years, the brain is forming thousands of neural connections as you learn and develop; these form the bedrock of more complex connections. This process works in tandem with your experiences, which means that exposure to prolonged periods of stress can cause problems with brain development.

Stress responses can be broken down into three categories; Positive Stress Response is a reaction to the common stresses we encounter, such as your first day at school, and enable us to develop our ability to deal with stress, if we’re well supported. Tolerable Stress Response is a more prolonged and severe stress response, which is caused by more lasting and impactful experiences, such as the death of a relative. However, if stable and effective relationships with adults are available to the child, the body and brain are able to recover. Toxic Stress Response, however, is the result of severe, frequent and prolonged exposure to stress triggering experiences and environments. This is typically accompanied by no adequate adult support and, as such, results in long lasting stress inflicted damage to the body and brain.

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At Creative Homes, we’re working to identify stress patterns within hard to reach and resource strained families early, before they develop into toxic stress. Our early intervention artists build bridges to these families and employ playful characters to form effective relationships with both children and their caregivers, to tackle the sources of stress. We typically look to achieve this by building routines into the lives of children and parents; specifically, this allows us to help families do things like reduce clutter in their home, making it a more ideal environment for children to learn and develop, and turn things like brushing teeth and healthy eating into daily rituals.

All of this compounds to reduce stress levels in the home and turn it into an environment where children can grow and develop with the help of healthy caregiver relationships.


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