Stress is a normal part of life, even during childhood. Kids’ bodies and brains are wired to deal with normal levels of stress from situations like meeting a new teacher or a doctor’s visit. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, there are some stresses that can impact a child’s mental and physical health long into adulthood. It’s called toxic stress and it occurs when a child experiences, “strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support.”
Children that experience sudden separation from their parents, chronic neglect or abuse are considered to be under toxic stress. This sends the normal stress response system into overdrive and can lead to long-term and permanent damage. The increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol can actually affect the structure of a child’s developing brain and change it irreversibly. Toxic stress can also impact the organs and make children prone to conditions like heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression later in life.
Jack Shonkoff, MD, is the Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and has studied early childhood adversity and its effects on health. Shonkoff states the younger the child, the more susceptible they are to the adverse effects of toxic stress.
In younger children, who may not be able to understand the situation, their bodies will react as if they’re experiencing a biological emergency. He testified before Congress earlier this year about the effects of US border separations based on several studies on toxic stress.
Shonkoff tells Parentology, “There’s no question that as a group these children will have problems in health — both physical health and mental health — and development in their lives that they would not have had if this had not been done to them.”
Unfortunately, toxic stress is not something easily treated. The most effective way to treat it is to remove the child from the situation creating the stress as soon as possible. In the instance of separation, the only way to repair the damage done is to reunite a child with a parent or a trusted caregiver.
“There’s nothing,” Shonkoff states. “No medicine. There’s no treatment program no intervention strategy that comes close to simply reuniting children with their parents.”