What is Toxic Stress?

by Megan Zhang

Over the past twenty years, a plethora of research has emerged to indicate that frequent and prolonged stress on young children who do not have emotional support and adult protection is highly correlated with increases in health and socio-emotional problems later in life. This type of stress has been dubbed “toxic stress.”

How is toxic stress different from normal stress?

In safe environments, children who have healthy relationships with adults (such as their parents) usually will not suffer adverse consequences in the face of stressful situations. In fact, for these children, a certain amount of stress can promote resilience, inner strength, and ability to cope. But normal stress turns into toxic stress when it is continuous and when surrounding adults do not make the child feel emotionally and physically secure.

How can children be protected from the damaging consequences of stress?

Oftentimes, children’s circumstances can be difficult to alter. For example, an impoverished neighborhood may be almost impossible to change, but children can be buffered from the destructive effects of toxic stress if parents act appropriately. A strong relationship between a child and his or her parents can be very protective; if parents are responsive and emotionally connected to the child, especially from early on in the child’s life, the child can be shielded from the consequences of stress.

What does toxic stress mean for developmental research?

First, studies done on toxic stress have shed further light on the idea that much of developmental research needs to be family-oriented. Children’s circumstances should be evaluated in the context of the family, the surroundings, and the challenges of the child’s environment.

Second, studies on toxic stress have pointed more and more to the importance of early childhood and the quality of parent-child relationships during this time. During this stage, the brain is setting a foundation for the rest of the individual’s life. This is why toxic stress experienced during this stage can be so detrimental for the child’s future and possibly lead to so many socio-emotional and health problems.

Third, the effects toxic stress seem to be playing a significant role in the academic achievement gap that has plagued the country’s education system for years. By protecting children from the adverse effects of toxic stress, can this gap perhaps be lessened? Can later health problems be minimized? Studies on toxic stress have opened several doors for further developmental research on early childhood.

What is the Neuroscience and Education Lab doing to help protect children from toxic stress?

In collaboration with Early Head Start, NEL’s ABC Project aims to study the ways in which parents can better support their children and protect them from the negative consequences of toxic stress in early childhood. Lab members will also visit children’s homes to evaluate them through games, activities, and simple physiological tests. Read more about the ABC Project here!