Expert Insight

What Is Toxic Stress Syndrome In Kids, & How Can Parents Help?

A pro weighs in with pointers on how to help prevent, identify, and treat it.

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Feeling a little stressed out, or a lot? You're not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety, and stress is at the root of the cause. Though the human body is designed to deal with a certain level of stress, too much and for too long can result in long-term adverse effects on our mental and physical health. Unfortunately, stress can have the same impact on children.

In fact, children who experience adverse experiences are at high risk of developing toxic stress syndrome — a stress response that the body cannot merely "shut off." Scary, right? So, what can parents do to help prevent, identify, and treat toxic stress syndrome in their children? We asked an expert.

What is toxic stress?

Understanding the difference between positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress is the first key step. While the word stress has a negative connotation, it's important to remember that there actually are positive types of stress (called eustress) that increase energy, motivation, and focus. They are typically short-term and, for children, can be linked to things like the anticipation of the first day of school, a trip to an exciting destination, or a performance. Once the stressor is removed, the body's stress response subsides.

The body is trained to work in this same cycle even when a stressor appears to be negative but falls into the category of tolerable stress. For example, a painful injury, like a broken bone, will send the body into a "fight or flight" response, releasing stress hormones (epinephrine, cortisol, and others) as a temporary response to the situation and later returning to normal.

What could happen to a child who suffers from toxic stress?

With toxic stress, the body is unable to recover from the stressor because of the lack of support — from a caretaker or parent — and often also because the stress is chronic in nature, like in the case of abuse, poverty, and other unhealthy or ongoing stressful situations.

According to Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D, "Over time [toxic stress] can cause damage to [the child's] brain, their body, and can result in lifelong health issues. Damaging effects include an inability to pay attention and inability to remember, impacts in terms of moods and feelings, heart issues, immunity issues, and issues in hormones and development such as impacting the timing of puberty."

What can parents do?

Regardless of the type of stress, children need support from their loved ones (and other important people in their lives) to help them understand and cope with their body's responses and provide the tools for potential recovery. So, whether it's a burst of uncontrollable excitement or an unfavorable reaction to something more serious, assisting them in calming down and explaining what is happening inside of their body and mind is necessary for avoiding or coping with toxic stress syndrome.

Of course, it's not always possible to elude stress, especially when it comes in the form of situations beyond immediate control, such as poverty and food scarcity. However, proactively identifying and treating a child at risk for toxic stress syndrome can help mitigate the long-term adverse effects.

One study on toxic stress noted that children with higher resiliency — marked by "higher IQ, easy temperament, a perception of competence, a positive self-concept, a realistic sense of control of the situation, empathy, and social problem-solving skills" — were less at risk of developing toxic stress than those children (or their parents), that showed signs of low educational achievement, low self-esteem, and depression.

Where these latter conditions exist, the study revealed that evidence has pointed towards "the use of parent-child interaction therapy, child-parent psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and trauma-focused psychotherapy for children showing signs of toxic stress [as a positive approach towards healing]."

At home, Hertlein encourages parents to "[...] positively impact toxic stress by consistently caring for their kids and promoting a sense of safety, including the things that [they] might normally expect to help improve their child's health, [such as] eating good food, exercising, being able to support them in managing stress and practicing mindfulness, and establishing a sleep and hygiene routine."

At the end of the day, stress is a part of life that everyone — including children — will be exposed to. The job of parents is to reduce and protect their children from damaging and excessive stress, model effective stress management skills, and provide a positive, healthy lifestyle to the best of their capability.