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How can toxic stress affect children? Five things you should know

Early exposure to toxic stress can affect normal child development. Pediatric Psychologist Maria Kroupina, PhD, offers tips and information for parents and caregivers.
Pediatric Psychologists Maria Kroupina, PhD, believes it is important to protect children from “toxic stress," which can result from strong, chronic and prolonged exposure to adversity, including violence, neglect or frequent hospitalizations.

Ask any pediatrician or psychologist: The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for brain development. 

That’s why pediatric psychologists like Maria Kroupina, PhD, believe it is important to protect children from “toxic stress”—the result of strong, chronic and prolonged exposure to adversity, including violence, neglect or frequent hospitalizations. That stress, Kroupina said, could manifest into other physical and emotional problems as children age, casting a long shadow over child and adolescent development.

Kroupina directs the Birth-to-Three Clinic, which pairs families and children with specialized mental health providers to ensure children grow up in a healthy, supportive environment. We asked Kroupina to share more information about toxic stress, its effects and tips for parents trying to build safe buffers for their children.

Not all stress is bad stress.

It’s normal for a child to experience stress early in life. This stress will not necessarily affect the child, as long as the child has the support of an attentive parent or caregiver who can help the child cope with adversity. Toxic stress occurs when a child is exposed to a traumatic situation—like violence, abuse, neglect, extended hospitalization or a divorce, for example—without adequate parental or caregiver support.

Left unaddressed, toxic stress may linger.

Children pass through a crucial stage of brain development from birth to age three. If a child is exposed toxic stress at this young age without the support of an attentive parent or caregiver, he or she may be at a higher risk for mental health issues or abnormal brain development. Toxic stress can also affect a child’s ability to learn, cope with stress or build healthy relationships with peers and adults.

Watch for signs of toxic stress.

Prevention is best, but it is also important to look for signs that a child is experiencing the negative effects of toxic stress. These symptoms include regulation issues, such as difficulty sleeping or eating, or increased anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

Learn more about our Birth-to-Three Clinic.

Parents: Help yourselves so you can help your children.

In order help children, parents need participate in self-care as well. If a parent is struggling with trauma, stress or mental health issues, his or her ability to act as an effective buffer for a child may be impaired. For example, a parent or caregiver struggling to control the anxiety caused by a child’s hospitalization or poor health may want to visit with a professional who can help manage the parent’s emotions so he or she is better equipped to support the child.

You’re not alone: Seek outside help if necessary.

Remember: You are not alone. The mental health specialists at our Birth-To-Three Clinic are ready to help work with you and your child at any point in their early development. Research demonstrates that early intervention can effectively curb problematic behavior and address the factors causing toxic stress. Parents should seek support if they are overwhelmed and need additional tools or resources to help a child threatened by toxic stress.