Toxic Stress in Early Childhood 

The future of any society depends on its capacity to promote the healthy development of the next generation. Extensive investigations about the biology of stress, carried out by the most prestigious universities in the world, demonstrate that the healthy development of a child can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of the stress response systems in the body and brain. This is why toxic stress, beginning in the early stages of development, can have negative effects on learning, behavior, and health.

Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy development in one’s childhood. When we feel threatened, our body prepares us to respond to any situation by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and the amount of secreted stress hormones such as cortisol.

When the stress response systems of a child activate within an adult supportive environment, these physiological effects slow down and are significantly reduced. As a result, the development of healthy stress-response systems is obtained. Nevertheless, if the stress response is extreme and enduring, and if the child does not possess a supportive system, this can result in a damaged and weakened brain structure; which results in lifelong repercussions.

It is important to distinguish between three types of stress responses: positive, tolerable and toxic.

Positive responses to stress:
Stressors are seen as a normal and essential part of healthy development; The first day of kindergarten or vaccination day are different situations in which stress can generate for a child.

Tolerable responses to stress
When faced with stressors, one activates the systems of alertness within their body; stressors include the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. If this activation is interrupted by the relationships that children form with adults who help them adapt, the brain and other organs will recover from negative impacts and other damages quicker.

Toxic responses to stress:
This type of response occurs when a child experiences strong, frequent, and prolonged adversity. The adversity many experience includes physical or emotional abuse, chronic negligence, substance abuse, the presence of mental illness in their primary caretakers, exposure to violence and/or to the economic difficulties within their family. Without a respective support network from adults towards an infant, prolonged activation from this stress response system can disrupt brain development and other organs in the body. Similarly, it can increase the risk of diseases related to cognitive deterioration for many years to come.

When a toxic response to stress occurs continuously or is brought about by multiple sources, it can take a cumulative toll on the physical and mental health of a child and can last a lifetime. Therefore, the greater the amount of adverse childhood experiences, the greater the probability of developmental setbacks and later health problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and many others.

Finally, we want to highlight research findings which indicate that supportive relationships and interactions with caring adults earlier in life can help prevent or reverse the damaging affects that result from toxic stress responses. It is our job to be the support system that the children around us need.

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