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Toxic stress

Stress is a normal part of children’s lives. Children must learn how to cope with stress. When children are able to cope effectively with stress, healthy development occurs. Stress is toxic when it is unmanageable and a child is unable to cope effectively with it.

Why is toxic stress a concern?

When a threat occurs, children’s bodies respond by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones so that the child can respond to the threat. When this system is activated, it allows the child to respond to the threat and survive. When the stress system is repeatedly activated by adverse childhood experiences such as violence in the home or community or child abuse and neglect, and a supportive relationship with adults does not exist, the chemicals and reactions in the child’s body can damage a child’s physical and mental health long-term.

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, parental mental illness or substance abuse, and parental separation/divorce.

What is the long term outlook of toxic stress?

Research shows that an increased risk of future health, behavior, and life difficulties occurs when children have been exposed to more adverse childhood experiences. Long-term health difficulties such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, suicide attempts, stroke and cancer have been linked to adverse childhood experiences. Behavior difficulties such as smoking, alcoholism, and drug use have been linked to adverse childhood experiences. Finally, lower graduation rates, academic achievement, and lost time from work have been linked to adverse childhood experiences.

How can I prevent damage from toxic stress in my child?

Prevention of adverse childhood experiences before they occur is important. Furthermore, reducing the number of stressful experiences children are exposed to is another way to prevent long-term effects of toxic stress. Involvement in programs that build the parent-child relationship and help the parent to support the child also can reduce the negative effects of toxic stress.

Seeking help

If your child has experienced significant stressors and exhibits behavioral or emotional difficulties, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional about further evaluation.

Additional resources:

Center for Youth Wellness 
Ace Study 

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