A guide to toxic stress in kids

Kids get stressed from time to time, just like adults. But when the stress is severe and continues for a long time, it can become toxic, affecting a child’s behavior and well-being both now and later in life.

The good news is that parents and caregivers may be able to prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress. Research shows that reducing a child’s exposure to severe stress or providing responsive and supportive care under stressful conditions can make a difference. 

To guide us in recognizing toxic stress in children, we turned to George Slavich, PhD, the founding director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. Dr. Slavich and his research team at UCLA, Stanford University and UCSF were recently awarded $3 million from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. The team will develop a statewide stress surveillance system. They’ll also study the effects of toxic stress on health while educating healthcare professionals and the public about this important topic.

We asked Dr. Slavich six common questions about toxic stress and health in children:

What is toxic stress and who does it affect?

Toxic stress occurs when a person experiences major life stressors for long periods of time. Major stress activates a biological stress response that may include increases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone levels, Dr. Slavich says. Stressful circumstances that can cause this response include:

·      Divorce

·      Economic hardship

·      Emotional or physical abuse or neglect

·      Exposure to mental illness

·      Exposure to substance abuse

·      Exposure to violence

Toxic stress affects people of all ages. When experienced during childhood, it can have lifelong effects, according to Dr. Slavich.

How does toxic stress differ from healthy (more typical) types of stress?

Most people experience everyday life stressors, even in childhood. Childhood stressors may include studying for a test, fighting with siblings or friends, or moving to a new town or school. In most cases, these stressors represent a temporary challenge and overcoming these circumstances can help build coping skills and resilience.

Experiences of toxic stress are different, Dr. Slavich says. Your child may feel threatened, unable to deal with or change the situation, hopeless or overwhelmed. Toxic stress also tends to be longer-lasting and more difficult to resolve.

What are the health effects of toxic stress for children?

Toxic stress can negatively affect children’s health and behavior. In the short term, toxic stress can lead to:

·      Anxiety

·      Sadness

·      Problems concentrating or remembering things

·      Behavioral problems

·      Alcohol and drug use

·      Other risk-taking behaviors

·      Greater susceptibility to viruses like the common cold

Over the long term, toxic stress can affect how the brain and immune system develop, Dr. Slavich says. It can also impact your child’s lifetime risk for health conditions like:

·      Anxiety disorders

·      Depression

·      Asthma

·      Chronic pain

·      Heart disease

·      Autoimmune disorders

·      Certain cancers

·      Neurodegenerative disorders

Is it possible to prevent toxic stress for your child?

Preventing toxic stress is possible and can happen at multiple levels. On a personal level, prevention can involve ensuring the social, emotional and physical safety of everyone in the family. Dr. Slavich advises checking in regularly with children and other family members, especially when something has happened or when someone's behavior or emotions have unexpectedly changed.

At the policy level, preventing toxic stress needs to include improvements to social and healthcare services that reduce health disparities caused by early life adversity. At the psychological level, preventing toxic stress should involve promoting a collective sense of universal equity, inclusion and belonging, Dr. Slavich says.

What are the signs of toxic stress in children?

To know whether a child is experiencing toxic stress, parents and caregivers can keep an eye on behavior – is your child acting or feeling differently than normal? Other signs may include prolonged anxiety or sadness, difficulties concentrating at home or school, and being overly threat-sensitive, risky or reclusive.

None of these signs are caused solely by toxic stress. But noticing them may be an indication that it is worth having your child assessed for adverse childhood experiences. 

What should you do if you think your child is experiencing toxic stress?

If you suspect that your child is or has been experiencing toxic stress, the first step is to ensure that you and they are safe and not at physical or emotional risk or harm.

Next, Dr. Slavich says, identify agencies and resources that can help to ensure continued safety and to begin healing from the stressors. Two places to begin for people living in California include:

·      The Resources page of the California ACEs Aware initiative 

·      The Take Action page of the Number Story website

If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing toxic stress, you can also reach out to your child’s primary care provider. As of October 2021, many healthcare providers in the State of California are able to provide free screening for adverse childhood experiences, thanks to California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ ACEs Aware initiative.



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