What’s Toxic Stress?

Toxic stress can harm a child’s developing brain and body.

If left unaddressed, toxic stress can affect growth, learning, behavior, immunity, and even genes. Kids who are exposed to very high doses of adversity without the support of a loving and caring adults can have more than double the lifetime risk of heart disease and cancer and a nearly 20-year difference in life expectancy. They’re also at greater risk for depression, obesity, substance abuse problems, smoking, lung problems, and teen pregnancy, along with other chronic illnesses down the road.

If your child has been exposed to adversity, know you’re not alone. Roughly half of the children in the United states have had potentially life-altering traumatic experiences. But there’s good news: Research shows parents can be the most powerful force in preventing or even reversing the impact of toxic stress in their children. That’s why we’re on a mission to help.


What are the signs?


Positive Stress
  1. Our bodys response to normal everyday stress, like starting a new daycare or taking a test at school.
  2. Stress hormones help the body do what’s needed in the moment, but once the event passes, our body goes back to its normal state.
Tolerable Stress
  1. Our bodys response to more serious stress like a scary injury, immigration, or living through a natural disaster.
  2. A flood of powerful stress hormones help the body rise to the occasion. However, the presence of a caring and trusted adult can offset this rush, calming the child’s stress response, and building resilience.
Toxic Stress
  1. Our body’s response to severe and/or lasting stress such as emotional or physical abuse, or neglect—without support from a caring and trusted adult.
  2. Powerful stress hormones overwhelm the child’s body and brain. This can result in lifelong issues with mental and physical health, as well as behavior.
Types of Stress Response

What are the signs?

What are the signs?

You know your kid best. So if something seems a bit off, it’s worth paying attention.

If you notice your child is having sleep issues, frequent headaches or tummy aches, crying more than usual, becoming extra clingy, regressing to bed wetting or baby talk, or developing new fears, it could be related to toxic stress.

In school-age kids and teens, common signs of toxic stress include:

  • Poor coping skills
  • Behavior and learning difficulties
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep issues
  • Overeating and other compulsive behaviors
  • Fear and anxiety triggered by places or people that remind them of past trauma


These are not the only possible symptoms of toxic stress, but they provide important clues that your child may need help.

Frequent illness can be another sign of trouble. Although children often fall ill because their immune systems are still growing and they spend lots of time passing germs back and forth with other kids, those experiencing toxic stress are especially likely to get colds and other infections. They are also at higher risk for health conditions like asthma, and they may not mature physically and mentally at the same pace as other children.


How toxic stress affects children’s bodies

The brain
Toxic stress can make it harder for children to sit still, pay attention, and learn. It can affect other behavior, too, causing children to have trouble with things like remembering rules or thinking before acting. It can also affect a child’s moods and feelings.

The heart
Toxic stress can increase a person’s risk of developing high blood pressure. It also promotes inflammation, a condition that can damage the arteries starting at a young age. Over time, high blood pressure and inflammation can lead to heart disease, stroke and other serious health issues later in life.

Toxic stress can make it harder for bodies to fight off infection and illness. For example, children may have more frequent colds and ear infections or health conditions like eczema or asthma.

Hormones and development
Toxic stress can impact growth and development. It can also lead to obesity and changes in the timing of puberty, as well as other issues.


Protecting your children from toxic stress

When caregivers consistently care for children and offer support, children feel safe. This feeling of security helps protect against or even reverse the effects of toxic stress. Other protective factors for your child include eating healthy food, getting regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, practicing mindfulness, and getting mental health support when needed. Together, these factors help lower the stress response and help your child regain his health and vitality.

Is My Kid at Risk?

Is My Kid at Risk?

Is My Kid at Risk?

To better understand if a child is at risk for toxic stress, clinicians will look at how many Adverse Childhood Experiences (or “ACEs”) they’ve been exposed to.

We’re not talking about “I was nervous for a test” or “I played badly in my soccer game.” Adverse Childhood Experiences means damaging life events like emotional or physical abuse, neglect, parental addiction and mental illness. Experiences that can be life altering for a child. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but if your kid has experienced ACEs, they may be at risk for toxic stress. But even if this is the case, don’t panic! There’s a lot you can do as a parent. Knowing what’s happening is the first step to getting help. And the earlier we’re able to help a child, the better the outcome over the long run.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Take the ACE Quiz to learn your (or your child’s) ACE Score:

My Own ACEs?

Parenting with ACEs 7 Tips on Parenting with ACEs

Perhaps you went through some hard times as a child you don’t much like to recall.  Maybe discipline meant getting hit at home or school. Maybe one of your parents drank too much, verbally abused you or struggled with opioids, meth or cocaine addiction. These types of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can cause toxic stress and put people at higher risk for heart disease, depression, and other chronic illnesses in later life.

If you were fortunate, maybe something good and positive in your life helped buffer the impact of all that stress. Did you have a friend, family member, teacher or counselor who served as a trusted confidant and source of love and support? Do you have a strong network of friends or family now? Do you eat well, exercise and get a good night’s sleep? These kind of positive forces – called “protective factors” by researchers — can help reduce the effect of ACEs.

With such protection, you may find that it’s easy to be a calm, empathetic and effective parent even if your own childhood was difficult and traumatic. But even with this help, you may find that your past has left you with an outsize response to stress – one that can sometimes undermine your relationships and your parenting.

That’s why it’s so important to learn more about your own ACEs.  Take the standard 10-question ACEs quiz that looks at different types of abuse, neglect, violence, and other signs of childhood adversity (or a more in-depth ACEs screen that looks at things like neighborhood racism and violence). Talk over what you learn with your healthcare provider.

Making the connection between childhood trauma and relationship problems can be a challenge, but it can also help you on a path toward healing. Once you understand the possible impacts of your own childhood trauma, you can start taking science-based steps to undo the harm – for you and your children.


Parenting with ACEs

Parents with ACEs may find it harder to stay calm in situations that don’t faze other parents. Why? Here’s what the science has to say about it:

  • Your body’s stress response is designed to help you survive. When you sense danger or any kind of threat, your body’s natural reaction is to increase blood pressure and heart rate so you have the energy to run or fight back.
  • Another reaction is to freeze and shut down. In past millennia, this may have occurred when someone realized he could neither defeat a terrifying animal or opponent or even safely get away.
  • These reactions are your body’s way of trying to keep you safe. When used from time to time, these stress responses work well.
  • When you experience constant stress during childhood, however, your body may learn to respond to small problems as if they were big ones. This could be why little things, even a toddler’s tantrum or a glass of spilled milk, can feel overwhelming.

This kind of response to stress can also explain why you may be overly sensitive to threats or challenges. You may sometimes feel anxious, threatened and hyper-vigilant even when in a safe and calm place. When you’re only a little stressed, you may feel alert, aware, and able to cope well. But when you become too stressed, you may feel panicked and anxious. You may also feel numb, exhausted, or emotionally drained.

Parenting can easily trigger this stress response because it’s such a demanding job.

You may experience feelings of stress overload with your kids, such as:

  • difficulty calming down
  • poor judgment
  • a quicker-than-normal temper and feelings of impatience
  • difficulty thinking logically
  • a limited ability to “read” others and judge the needs of your children
  • difficulty modeling good skills and behavior for your children

Parents who suffered severe emotional distress in childhood are also more likely to have children who miss developmental milestones or experience  behavioral or mental illnesses.

This doesn’t mean that your children will necessarily suffer if you had a rough childhood. Support from compassionate adults like you can help stop the cycle.


7 Tips on Parenting with ACEs

Once you understand whether you’ve been harmed by childhood trauma, you can start taking steps to undo it – and perhaps try some new approaches with your children.  Here is some science-based advice:

  • Realize it’s not your fault. As experts on trauma have pointed out, “It’s not about what is wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you.”
  • Take care of yourself. You need some trusted confidants to share your joys and fears. Try to cultivate stronger networks with your friends and family, as well as other people in your community. Don’t feel guilty about indulging yourself in moments just for you – enjoying that cup of coffee for an extra five minutes or a phone call with a friend.
  • Stressed out? Take some deep breaths. Stopping what you’re doing for a few minutes to breathe can calm your body and ease your stress response. Encourage your kids to breathe deeply or even join you in a few minutes of mindful meditation. If you find you’re continually on the verge of a meltdown, consider seeing a mental health professional for help.
  • Build in some rituals. Cooking and eating together, playing board games,  taking a walk around the neighborhood, reading to your kids at bedtime, even sorting clothes together – all these “anchoring” rituals can help create closer, more loving relationships with your children, according to Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a teen, child, and family psychologist licensed in Connecticut and New York.  Participating in community traditions that build a sense of belonging is also invaluable, according to ACEs expert Dr. Robert Sege of Massachusetts.
  • Give your child more undivided attention. Start by putting away your smartphone when you talk with your kids – or when you’re interacting with your baby. Scientists have found that babies develop back-and-forth “conversations” without language by the time they’re 11 months old, but they need to know that you’re listening. Talking with an attentive parent helps babies develop the brain circuitry they need to grow and develop.
  • Try some calming bubbles. If your kids are getting out of control, change the dynamic by blowing soap bubbles together. Try blowing a string of bubbles (or one giant bubble) via “low and slow” breathing – this helps trigger the nervous system’s “rest and digest” response. This will lower your stress if practiced regularly. Plus, it’s big fun.

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