The Impact of Toxic Stress in Childhood

Why is Toxic Stress in Childhood so Problematic?

Toxic stress in childhood is the feeling of emotional or physical tension after intense, frequent, and prolonged adversity. In most cases, toxic stress is a result of physical abuse, emotional stress, chronic neglect, violence, or drug abuse.

And the results; higher risks of mental, cognitive, and behavioral problems. In more severe cases, toxic stress may alter the child’s brain and lead to other serious health complications.


Causes of Toxic Stress in Childhood

  • Physical/ emotional abuse
  • Prolonged neglect
  • Prolonged exposure to violence
  • Household dysfunction
  • Extreme poverty
  • Caregivers with mental health or substance abuse issues
  • Worrying about schoolwork or grades
  • Juggling responsibilities for example school, work, and sports
  • Problems with friends or bullying
  • Changing schools
  • Negative thoughts about themselves.

Now that we know some of the major causes of toxic stress in children, let’s check out some common toxic stress symptoms in children:


Toxic Stress Syndrome Symptoms in Children

So, what does toxic stress look like? Let’s find out!

You can tell when a child is going through toxic stress if you observe all or some of the following symptoms;

  • Maladaptive coping skills for example self-harm or substance abuse
  • Physical discomfort that may include headache, stomach upset, or muscle aches
  • Poor sleep patterns or nightmares
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of self-reflection and regulation
  • Poor stress management
  • Loss of appetite or eating too much
  • Rapid loss or increase in weight
  • Racing negative thoughts in regard to life and self
  • Poorly developed functioning skills
  • Low impulse control
  • Absent-mindedness

A child that lacks ongoing support and nurturing has a higher risk of suffering from toxic stress. Similarly, kids in abusive and unsafe homes are also at risk of toxic stress.


Effects of Toxic Stress on Child Development

From conception, stress becomes an unavoidable part of life for an important reason… survival. The stress that an unborn child suffers will equip them with the power to handle other potentially risky situations.

Also, positive stress help in activating a person’s alert system resulting in a fight-or-flight response. This may lead to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and higher energy consumption, among other psychological effects. And as soon as the situation passes, the body gets back to its original state.

Now, while positive stress will have a positive effect on a child’s brain development, chronic stress may adversely affect the child’s brain development in the following ways:


Cognitive Impairment

As a result of toxic stress in childhood, a child may find it difficult to remember, learn new things, or concentrate in normal daily activities. They may also find it hard to make age-appropriate decisions when asked to do so.

Even worse, this cognitive deficit may continue in adulthood which will interfere with their day-to-day life.


Learning Disability

Toxic stress will make a child that has been performing very well in school may start performing poorly. Questions that they could answer with ease now seem like a mountain which will make the problem more severe.

If the teachers, guardians, and fellow students do not provide support and instead make them an object of mockery, things may get worse.


Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is the inability to control one’s emotions and how to express them. If a child cannot regulate their emotions and reactions, it will negatively affect their academics, mental health, and relationship with others.

This is why you find that toxic stress in childhood will make a child over-anxious and at times aggressive.


Mental Disorders

Prolonged exposure to toxic stress will result in mental illness at some point in life. This may be in form of somatic disorders, anxiety, depression, suicide attempt, and obsessive-compulsive disorder


Low Immunity

Besides negatively affecting the brain, toxic stress will weaken the immune system of the child. This will make the child more prone to infections or other severe medical issues.


How to Reverse the Effects of Chronic Stress


1. Be in line and understand your kid’s signals

By learning to stay in tune and understanding your kid’s signal, you’ll know how to calm them down whenever they appear stressed or afraid. For instance, you can soothe the child or teach them how to remain calm even when upset.


2. Become a friend to your child

One of the best ways to counter the impact of toxic stress in childhood is to be a friend to them. Let your child know that they can get to you at any time, discuss any issue, and even rant when there’s a need.

Whenever an issue weighs them down, be there to rock, cuddle, or even massage them. Children love getting hugs, listening to stories, singing together, or even handling normal daily routines.

A child that feels appreciated, seen, heard, loved, and understood will recover faster from chronic stress.


3. Manage your stress

When you let how you feel and the situations you are going through to control you, it may be hard to be there for your child. This is why you need to learn how to keep your own stress in check.

By appearing calmer in the presence of your children, the chances of helping your child to overcome toxic stress effects are higher.


4. Seek medical help

A professional therapist that has dealt with similar cases has what it takes to help your child to recover. They know the right words to speak, when to listen, and what to give to speed up the recovery process.

If there are other serious health implications, the specialist will detect the problem in real-time and offer workable solutions.

5. Adapt a daily routine

By helping your child to know what to expect and what to do next, it will help in preparing them psychologically. This will, in return, help in reducing stress and the effects of chronic stress.


6. Encourage daily exercises

Regular active play will help in keeping the child’s mind off the problems they’ve been going through. And because of the rigorous play activities, they will sleep better which will also boost their recovery.


7. Provide a balanced diet

Healthy foods will build a healthy brain and keep the body free from illnesses and infections. So, instead of giving junk foods for comfort, give your child fruits, vegetables, and proteins, among other healthy foods.


8. Ensure the child gets adequate sleep

Sleeping will give your child’s body enough time to grow, heal, recharge, and reset. When the child wakes up after about 8 hours of sleep, they will have the energy to fight and manage stress.

Though toxic stress in childhood is a great risk to a child’s life, all is not lost. Consistent care, attention, and support will reduce your child’s stress levels.

Talk time to hug your child, play with bubbles, listen to music together, engage in coloring activities, meditate… Whatever, your heart tells you, give it your all.

Most importantly, let your child know that they are not dealing with toxic stress in childhood alone. Be the confidant, the strong pillar, the special friend, the hero, and everything in between.

If one method isn’t working for your child, try another way until you find the perfect solution. And like thousands of children that have overcome the effects of toxic stress in childhood, your child will overcome it.

Also Read: My Child is Lazy and Unmotivated