Toxic Stress Need Not Undo Our Children

It's all about proper support for our kids — and understanding their resiliency

There’s a great deal of talk now about the negative effects of ongoing stress within our homes — stress due in large part today’s fractious political climate.

But another stressor is increasingly wreaking havoc on our kids: poverty.

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Researchers from both Texas Tech University (TTU) and the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School in Brazil recently wrapped up a study on toxic stress on children, specifically from impoverished areas.

They found that in addition to witnessing violence and being subjected to abuse, toxic stress can lead children to develop negative behaviors such as aggression, anxiety, and depression — unless they have adequate support from an adult.

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That last part may be the most critical element of that equation, said Dr. Rosemary Stein, a North Carolina-based pediatrician.

“We’re acting like these are newfound stressors in society. Children would have their parents eaten by lions during Christian times right in front of them,” said one pediatrician.

While some families are in horrible situations, children need to learn how to be resilient, regardless of income bracket or cultural status. We shouldn’t expect anything less from them, Stein said. She points out, however, that the rest of us need to be willing to be part of the solution.

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“When one person or a group of people step in to help, or even to take on the role of the parent if that parent is unable to — and they make themselves accountable to that child and responsible for that child, then that kid has a shot,” Stein told LifeZette.

On the other hand, when nobody does that, or there is this faceless entity called the government that tries to do this for them — children most often fail.

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“Horrible, stressful things happen in life, but there has been toxic stress in children’s lives for centuries and centuries. Some may say that is too cavalier an attitude — but we’re acting like these are newfound stressors in society. Children would have their parents eaten by lions during Christian times right in front of them — talk about toxic stress. But the villagers would come in to help those children heal and support them, not the government. It has to be heartfelt and personal. When you have that, that toxicity is diminished and you can make something of that horrible situation,” said Stein.

Coddling is never the answer. Truly loving children, telling them you’re there for them, that you’ve “got them,” can be, however.

“There’s so much healing in words like that. But we’re sending everybody to psychiatrists and they can’t help all these people — nor is that their job. We’re delegating the job of ownership over a child and the healing process to an expert or a professional or the government, and that was never meant to happen.”

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She adds that some of these more recent studies also seem to conclude that children who come from poor homes are somehow weaker than kids who come from middle-class homes.

“So just because they’re poor, they’re not able to face these horrendous situations and come out stronger? I don’t know that that’s racist — but it’s definitely elitist. To think that one group of people can come out of difficult situations better, so we have to coddle and demean others in a sense, because we think they’re not able to help themselves out of that with good family or community support — is an even greater tragedy.”

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