This post is written in partnership with Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness.
As a parent of four children, I know all about helping children navigate the stresses of life. There are regular challenges that kids need to learn to work through, such as disagreements with friends or not doing well on a school assignment. These don’t often have a lasting impact on a child’s mental health. Then there is toxic stress, which often develops from adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, family disruption or addiction in the family. This toxic stress, if left unaddressed, can result in lifelong behavioral issues and challenges to mental and physical health. You can assess your child’s risk for toxic stress by taking the quiz for Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES.
One of my children started showing signs of anxiety and stress in the early tween years. She was experiencing stomach upset, having trouble sleeping and sadness. These are just a few of the signs of toxic stress. Other signs include:
- Poor coping skills
- Behavior and learning difficulties
- Mood swings
- Overeating and other compulsive behaviors
- Fear and anxiety triggered by places or people that remind of past trauma
Trips to the doctor to rule out medical issues came up empty and the blanket diagnosis was anxiety. We weren’t offered any treatment options or resources until I took her to a pediatrician who I had met though another one of my kids. He was attentive and asked many questions, one of which was “When did this all start?” My daughter told him she started to feel anxious around the fourth grade and said that nothing had happened that year to trigger it. However, a lot had happened that year.
Around the time that my daughter started to experience anxiety (but long before she shared it with us), her older sibling became very ill and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that preoccupied much of our time and energy. I was concerned about how that was affecting the other children, but that alone didn’t seem like it would cause her so much stress. It wasn’t the only thing to happen that year, though. My husband had a workplace injury and broke both arms, resulting in multiple surgeries and a great deal of time off work. Our oldest son left home to go to college. A family member was deep in the throes of addiction and her children were in our care for a time. When I laid these events out for the doctor, I realized what a tremendous amount of stress she had been dealing with. I knew that it was a stressful time, but I had underestimated the impact of all that stress.
Thankfully, toxic stress doesn’t have to cause lifelong mental health issues. In my daughter’s case, we had already taken the first steps towards recovery by getting her the treatment and counseling she needed. Acknowledging that there is an issue and giving her the space to share her feelings was an important step as well.
Other ways that parents can keep their children from developing toxic stress or help them heal if they are exposed are:
- Helping them develop healthy relationships
- Providing a nutritious and balanced diet and family meal routine
- Exercising with them daily
- Helping them develop good sleep habits
- Practicing mindfulness
It is an ongoing process and one that can benefit everyone, not just someone who has experienced trauma. If we all take the time to practice self-care and healthy living, we will be better prepared to help one another when tough situations arise.