Raising Healthy Kids

The Effects of Toxic Stress on Children

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Some stress is simply unavoidable in modern life, even for children. Learning to successfully cope with stress is an important part of growing up. However, when stress becomes too extreme or goes on for an extended period of time, it forms what is known as “toxic stress response” in children.

“Stress, when experienced in an encouraging setting, can be normal and even have positive, healthy effects,” says Nakia V. Williams, M.D., a pediatrician with Henry Ford Health System.

Dr. Williams gives an example of kids facing a big test at school. Students who wake up rested that morning, have a hot breakfast and receive encouraging words from caregivers may still feel stress. But, because they feel more supported, they can function at a high enough level to perform well on the exam. In contrast, children left to fend for themselves perhaps due to the caregiver’s need to work multiple jobs, or the caregiver’s own challenges with mental health, might not have a good send-off, which may result in a poorer academic performance.

Poor school performance is not the only possible outcome of repeated toxic stress. Too much stress can interfere with a child’s normal development and can lead to long-term consequences.

“It is common for the child to experience learning disorders or behavioral problems in school, mirroring ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder),” says Dr. Williams says. “Adolescents may engage in high-risk behavior like alcohol and drug use or risky sexual activity or teenage pregnancy.”

Different Kinds of Stress
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, there are three types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic. This refers to the effects on the body, not to the stressful event itself.

Positive stress results from situations where the child feels supported and is able to overcome the stress in a healthy way. There may be a brief increase in heart rate and elevation in stress-related hormones. Tolerable stress refers to serious, temporary stressful situations (like the death of a loved one or a natural disaster) that are buffered by good relationships. They may take a toll on the child’s brain and health in the short term but the support allows them to recover from these setbacks.

“Toxic stress occurs when there are prolonged stressors in the absence of support from an adult,” explains Dr. Williams.

Serious stressors can include:

  • Bullying
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse and neglect
  • Fears about parental separation or divorce
  • Incarceration of loved ones
  • Exposure to environmental violence

Dr. Williams notes that festering stress often wreaks havoc with health later in life. These children grow into adults who may experience heart disease, obesity or alcohol and drug abuse. It can also perpetuate to the next generation, as their own parenting skills are affected by their childhood experiences.

“The key to children becoming resilient will be connected to their exposure to positive relationships with adults who can offer encouraging words or nurture the child’s desire to succeed,” says Dr. Williams.

She adds that you should be concerned about prolonged stress when children isolate themselves, have fights or become more defiant to adults. Oftentimes, schools will alert parents to frequent behavioral problems in children.

If concerns arise, caregivers or parents should seek the assistance of a doctor, school counselor or other professionals trained to screen for adverse childhood experiences and provide resources to the family.

To find a pediatrician or make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Nakia Williams is a pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center locations in Dearborn and Detroit.

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