Toxic stress in children's lives has emotional, physical implications

This blog is a part of Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Programs Tonya Allen's blog series about the things that inspire her. This is the fourth in the series. Read previous installations here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

As a mother, I often picked up my children when they were babies and comforted them when they cried. Family members often chided me, saying I was spoiling them and that I'd pay for it in the future. They said, "Just let them cry." I never took the advice. I wanted my children to be happy, and I wanted to comfort them. Despite being a young mother, I was comfortable with my parenting choices and listened to my maternal instincts despite the naysayers.

Brain research has some interesting findings in this area, findings that encourage me to believe I had the right instincts back then. Scientists are studying the brains of babies and young children and now know that brains grow more before children turn 3 than any other time in their lives. Scientists are also finding things that prevent a child's brain from growing. They call it “toxic stress.” You and I would call it abusive relationships (physical, emotional or sexual), absentee parenting due to drugs or alcohol use, neglect, chronic grief due to parent’s death or incarceration, or chaotic, unsupportive home environments. In the social sector, we call these things “risk factors.”

We have long known that if children experience risk factors or toxic stress that it influences whether a child will do well in school. This stress actually wires the child’s brain differently than the healthy stress most children experience, and can result in kids having difficulty solving problems, following rules and paying attention, all of which present challenges to them succeeding academically and socially. What's new with the research is that they’re also finding this stress actually changes their bodies. If kids experience significant trauma, then they are more likely to be obese, diagnosed with ADHD and a host of other health problems as a child. As an adult, they are more likely to experience serious chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and mental health issues. For example, if a person experiences more than seven of these traumas as a young child, they are 360 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease. This is astounding.

What is more astounding is that some of our kids experience these traumas daily in their homes, in their schools and in their communities. Violence is rampant in Detroit. The gunshots kids hear cause trauma. Parents who are so stressed they’re not able to be supportive to their kids cause trauma. Constant fighting at school causes trauma. Abuse – be it physical, sexual, emotional or drug use – causes trauma. Too many of our children are experiencing toxic stress before they turn 3, which will determine, in some cases, how they will behave, how they will learn and how long they will live long into adulthood.

The good news is that parents can play a major role in preventing trauma and buffering their children from stress. Grandparents, neighbors and teachers can, too. Kids in the neighborhoods see and are exposed to far more than they should. As my grandmother would say, "We need to keep these children out of grown folks' business." The challenge before us is to prevent or mitigate children's exposure to adult stress.

The Skillman Foundation is undergoing strategic planning. During our discussions, we are placing this issue of toxic stress and violence upfront and center in our discussions. How do we fix this so kids don't experience it in their homes, schools and neighborhoods? Violence is not just toxic for young children, but for all children. We are challenging ourselves to make investments that protect children and ensure their safety.

Like you, we know that we can't fix this with a program. Rather, it requires a community response. All adults – parents, social workers, police, business leaders, educators and others – will have to work together if we are to make a difference to reduce violence and toxic stress.

The brain research is distressing, but it is also informative. We now know what the actions of adults can do to small children and how they can influence the outcomes of their lives. It is also liberating. Now we know what not to do to cause this toxic stress.  As Maya Angelou stated, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."  As a community, it is time for us to do better for our children.

In hindsight, I don't know if my picking up my children when they cried prevented them from brain trauma. Nor do I proclaim to be a perfect parent or to have perfect children. (Actually, they are probably a little spoiled and over-indulged.) But for me, there is something inspiring about believing that together as a city we can make all children feel loved, safe and, yes, a little spoiled.

Read more about toxic stress at Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child and in this presentation by Dr. Megan R. Gunnar of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

-- Tonya Allen is the Foundation's Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Program.


De-Toxing for our Children
Thanks for sharing this information and inviting the community to work collaboratively to remove the stress our babies face. I love on my 3 boys each and every chance I get.

While children are resilient, the stressors may be hindering their opportunities to soar. We see it academically and socially. We are all well aware that urban youth are strong, survivors, and have a lot of untapped potential. Now it's time for us to pay attention to self, commit to do better, and transfer more love to them in dram-free zones.

We know that children act out, become withdrawn, and conform to their environment when they don't receive the proper guidance and modeling. I am amazed at the impact at such an early age. This will be a great opportunity to share and de-tox together. I look forward to the discussions.

LaToniya A Jones
12/28/2012 at 5:42 pm

Toxic Stress
An insightful read. We know students cannot learn if their psyche is bombarded daily by stress, if they are in a constant fight or flight mode (Mazlow). Schools, faith-based institution, teachers, parents need to reinvent their roles if urban schools are to prepare students to be competitive in the new economy.

We are being challenged to educate more of the population that we have been least successful educating: children of the poor, chronically unemployed, the single, underemployed parent.
How do we build environments that educates the WHOLE URBAN CHILD not just education for content. We need to reexamine the classroom culture in each school. Classroom culture instills a sense of community that says, “I belong and I can dream here;” or “ I am invisible and don’t matter.” "I want to show up and be part of something larger than myself."
According to Dr. Howard Gardener (When Excellence and Ethics Meet) students must become proficient at collaborating with persons of different ethnicities, religions, gender persuasions and all the while maintaining their own identity. Workers in the 21st century must form the equivalent of "psychic jijitsu."
As we journey from the old industrial economy/ school house civilization to a new social/global and economic reality, we are being challenged to create a new reality (Reconstruction) for the next generation. A daunting task indeed.

Lorraine Richardson
12/26/2012 at 8:48 pm

Important Points
Bravo! Parents today seem to not realize how much their coping and life management impacts their children.Very thoughtful information.

Kim Hurns
12/21/2012 at 8:32 pm