Is your child suffering from toxic stress?

Not all stress is created equal. Some stress is good for us. It helps us learn, grow, adapt, and improve. Other stress is temporary, and teaches us resilience and to overcome fear. But some stress is downright harmful, and as parents, we need to be able to recognize the signs and know when to pull the reins in.

Let's break it down:

Positive stress, according to Hahhhvahhhd, is "a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels." Examples of this in our tweens might be speaking in front of the class, performing at a talent show, or getting a shot at the doctor's office.

Remember: this stress is good. It teaches kids how to stay calm when they step out of their comfort zones, and that it's OK to be excited or nervous about a big event in their lives.

Tolerable stress "activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury." A broken bone or a lost pet is devastating, but not the end of the world.

Remember: this stress is also good, if you can manage it and decompress it. As adults, we cannot create a stress-free world for our kids. Shit happens, and will continue to happen. It's up to us to prepare our kids for managing stress in healthy ways as adults. 

Toxic stress, on the other hand, can be dangerous. It is usually the product of strong, frequent and/or prolonged trauma such as physical/emotional abuse, neglect, or even caregivers fighting.

This stress is bad. Toxic stress can take its toll on a child’s brain and organ development when he or she is exposed to it for long periods of time, and can be compounded when there is not an adult to de-escalate the situation and reassure them that everything will be fine. Children can also develop stress-related diseases and be at the risk of cognitive impairment when they reach adulthood.

Some of the causes can be easy to spot - are you constantly fighting with your kids and/or your spouse? Well duh, that affects your kids negatively and can stress them out. But there are things that aren't as easy to see.. Are your kids staying up all night to perfect their homework? Do they get depressed when they get anything less than an A? Is there a bully at school that they aren't telling you about? Overscheduling and enormous school pressures can also be a source of toxic stress. 

The good news is, toxic stress can be identified, avoided, and mitigated. Here are a few cues to identify the signs of toxic stress and implement solutions if needed.

Signs of Toxic Stress in Children

The American Academy for Pediatrics highlighted five responses to trauma which can help parents and caregivers identify toxic stress.

  1. Irregular Sleep Patterns – Children suffering from toxic stress may have difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Some may even suffer from nightmares, which may trigger the first two symptoms.
  2. Change in Eating Habits – Children suffering from toxic stress will either be eating less or rapidly. Some may even complain about lack of satiety or exhibit food hoarding habits.
  3. New Toilet Habits – Toxic stress will result in constipation or may change the toilet habits of a child, which could even involve enuresis (involuntary urinating), encopresis (fecal incontinence), and regression of toilet skills.
  4. Dissociation – Mainly the act of separating from immediate surroundings, this effect is most likely in females and younger children. The child will become numb to their surroundings and people and may prefer to hang out in a fantasy world in their head.
  5. Arousal – The second behavioral response to toxic stress, arousal targets males and older children, driving them to become aggressive, anxious, and likely to show exaggerated response to stimuli.

What You Can Do

If your child recently developed these symptoms or you fear that they are over stressed, don't worry; you have options! Here are a few:

  1. Revamp the Schedule - Ask your kids if they truly enjoy every one of their activities. If your kids need a breather, maybe it's time to cross a sport or lesson off the list. Kids need time to just be kids, as well. However, if they're enjoying every minute of their hectic schedule, that's fine too! Just remember to ask them periodically, "Are you still enjoying this? Do we need to slow down?"
  2. Put Yourself in the Child’s Shoes – Always think how your actions may be interpreted by your kids. For young kids or those on the spectrum, are also methods of training children to identify your facial and vocal expressions, which may help prevent them from escalating.
  3. Teach the Child to De-stress Themselves – Teach the child a set of exercises or breathing techniques to conquer their stress and prevent it from becoming toxic. 
  4. Open Communication Channels – Your child needs to be able to talk to you about anything that's bothering them. Show that you're accessible. Above all, don't get mad when they tell you something you don't necessarily want to hear, or they will learn that they cannot tell you everything.
  5. Ensure the Child’s Safety and Your Love – It's amazing how far just letting your children know that they’re safe and loved can go. Give praise when it’s due or correct the child in a calm tone.
  6. If Needed, Seek Therapy – Toxic stress sufferers and their caregivers can take part in different forms of therapy, including Parent Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT) or Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS).

Be aware of the signs and take action to ensure the mental and physical health of your child. It's worth it, for their health and the health of your family, in the short AND long run!

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