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Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress

8:27:00 AM Phantasm Darkstar 0 Comment(s)

This is from one of my journals in my psychology class. If you have a child at home, I hope you would take some time to read this. This would be helpful especially for parents of infants. Part of our society’s norms is to allow the child to cry for a few minutes before attending to him because we tend to believe that this will make his lungs stronger when he grows up. Our society also believes that this will prevent the child to be “spoiled” as he grows older. This is a wrong notion and must be corrected.




Have you noticed children who suddenly shift into heightened emotion? Their self-regulation systems have not been developed properly.

     Children’s self-regulatory systems are under construction in early life. Children need parents to learn self-control and deal with stress. They need caregivers to help them calm down quickly so the stress-reactive systems don’t learn to habitually “stay on.” When parents act as if babies should calm themselves down, they are potentially setting up toxic stress for the baby. Instead, parent responsiveness and quick calming of baby systems helps the baby to learn to calm herself down over the first few years of life.  

The stress response refers to what happens when a person senses threat. The stress response has two major response patterns: “fight or flight” or “freeze-faint.”

     Under perceived threat, the body mobilizes energy to “fight-flight-freeze-or-faint” (moving from to the next until one works). Fight or flight is a reaction in the sympathetic nervous system that activates the body and increases blood flow, preparing the body to take action (Perry, 2014).  This works very well for zebras (and other animals), helping them use the energy to escape or fight off predators. Because zebras mobilize the stress response only occasionally in reaction to predators, after the burst of excitement their stress systems are able to calm down and return to a normal baseline. So, “zebras don’t get ulcers” (Sapolsky, 2004).

     When fight-flight does not work --i.e., the zebra is “cornered”-- the parasympathetic system becomes activated, exhibited in freeze or faint responses. The body goes into survival mode, decreasing heart rate and slowing growth. First there is paralysis, if things get worse; the individual faints in hopes that simulated death will prevent real death.

     In infants facing stress, the freeze-faint (active dissociation) is common because crying doesn’t work and they are unable to run away. So an isolated baby who is quiet is not necessarily a good thing.

     Sometimes babies live in chronically stressful environments. Chronic stress can turn into toxic stress, damaging all sorts of systems in the brain. Once a tolerance to a chronically stressful environment is built up, only a tiny dose, the theoretical “straw that breaks the camel’s back” can raise stress levels significantly and the child goes out of control (Perry, 2014). Niehoff (1999) describes the results of ongoing stress, which in older children and adults can look like deficient moral character but is overwrought physiology:

     “As stress wears away at the nervous system, risk assessment grows less and less accurate.   Minor insults are seen as major threats. Benign details take on a new emotional urgency. Empathy takes a back seat to relief from the numbing discomfort of a stress-deadened nervous system. Surrounded on all sides by real and imagined threats, the individual resorts to the time-honored survival strategies: Fight, flight, or freeze.” (p. 185)

     For those dealing with excess stress, a return to a calm baseline becomes impossible. Why? Because the baseline has moved to over- or under-arousal. When a child is exposed to excess stress in early life, a predictably threatening world, the child stays always “on guard.” In this state, the slightest “straw” leads to an extreme reaction (Perry, 2014). This is unlike what happens with a child who has responsive caregivers who help the child develop secure attachment and good self-control systems through holding, rocking, and other calming reactions.

     If a child is chronically exposed to stress, the stress response is overwhelmed and small stressors become challenging according to Bruce Perry.

What is chronic stress for a baby? 
     Chronic stress occurs when parents let babies cry, make babies sleep alone, isolate them from touch (holding and carrying) and limit social play.

What happens to those with a sensitized stress response when they grow up?
     According to research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) with children, those who had adverse experiences were five to ten times more likely to have ill health in adulthood (Perry, 2014).

What can parents do to prevent sensitized stress systems? 
     Follow the baby. The baby tells you what it needs which is mostly close holding, skin-to-skin contact, rocking and feeding on the infant’s schedule. A supportive relationship with a caregiver contributes to the formation of resiliency skills against stress (Perry, 2014).

What can be done for children who have a sensitized stress system? 
     Children’s brains are flexible as they are growing and developing. Strong supportive relationships can play a key role in shaping the brain throughout childhood. Find ways that calm stress in that child. For example, parents can help older children calm down with things as simple as tone of voice, supportive word or kind touch. These can go a long way.

     Throughout life, healthy relationships can help to guide children in stress response, in finding ways to respond actively to stress, and in reducing the stress in a child’s life. Keeping away from toxic stress and finding ways to calm down decrease the likelihood of ill health later.


Credits: Narvaez, D. (2014, December 17)

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