Toxic Stress and How to Avoid it

How does a child’s brain develop?

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child is doing groundbreaking work toward closing the gap between what we know and what we can do to improve the lives of children, especially those facing adversity.

The Center tells us that early experiences in life (both good and bad) impact the development of brain architecture—the very foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. This architecture consists of billions of connections between nerve cells across different areas of the brain. In your little one’s first few years of life, more than one million new connections form every second.

“Serve” and “return” interactions are what shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures or cries, for example, that is a serve. When an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words or a hug, that is a return. Through serve-return interactions, neural connections are built and strengthened in your child’s brain, supporting the development of communication and social skills.

When caregiving isn’t responsive

In the absence of responsive caregiving—or when serves are made but returns are unreliable or inappropriate—the stressed body responds by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone production.

If the stressful situation is temporary—for example, if a new caregiver were to arrive on the scene—the stress responses can be tamped down as long as an environment of supportive relationships continues. This is called a positive stress response. Over time, and by repeatedly recovering from temporary stressful situations, a child develops a healthy stress response system, and learns how to cope with hardship.

But, as Harvard states, when stressful situations are frequent, strong and/or prolonged, a toxic stress response can occur, disrupting the development of brain architecture (among other things), and increasing the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment. This can impact a child well into his or her adult years.

What causes toxic stress and can it be overcome?

Physical and emotional abuse, neglect, a caregiver’s substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the overwhelming burdens of family economic hardship—all without adequate adult support—can result in toxic stress. The more severe these stressful experiences during childhood, the greater the possibility of developmental delays and later health problems, including substance abuse and depression.

So here’s the good news: Harvard has found that supportive, responsive relationships—consistent serves and returns with caring adults as early in life as possible—can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.

Please take a minute to watch this video that perfectly sums up the impact of toxic stress.

Then, learn how researchers are tackling toxic stress and improving outcomes for children