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Toxic stress in early childhood can damage a child's brain for life

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Much research has been done on the effects of stress, especially on adults. Nearly 75 percent of all doctor visits can be attributed to a stress related illness. However, the damage done to a child's health and well being from stress can have a more devasting, life long effect. The good news is, it is virtually avoidable.

Stress in children can be catagorized in 3 ways; temporal, tolerable and toxic.

Temporal (or positive) stress might involve a situation that strikes discomfort or fear, like hunger or an upset tummy. When the stressful situation is quickly resolved, the child suffers no long term effects. Temporal stress is actually a healthy and natural element of child development.

Tolerable stress would be a situation or feeling lasting much longer and of much greater intensity such as an illness, accident and family disruptions, such as a death or divorce. Tolerable stress that is buffered by strong bonds with an loving parent or care giver to ease the stressful situation does not typically have life long effects on the child.

Toxic stress may contain some of the same scenarios as the tolerable stress, but it can often be much more severe than that. The stress becomes toxic when the stress is prolonged for an extensive amount of time and when the child does not have help dealing with the stress. This happens when a parent or care giver is "absent". This "absence" could be due to drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, age, or even an over crowded home or day care setting. But the most harmful of all toxic stress is when parent or care giver actually inflicts abuse upon the child, or if the child witnesses violence or abuse in the family.

Toxic stress can impair brain chemistry and circuitry that deals with learning and cognitive (or memory) behavior. Toxic stress can also flood the body with the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can weaken the immune system leaving the body vulnerable to infections and disease. Cortisol is also responsible for storing fat within the body. According to research, the physiological effects of stress on a child can last a life time.

The cure for toxic stress is obviously prevention. Risk factors and warning signs observed by neighbors, friends, family members, teachers, or others should be valued and the situation should be intervened as soon as possible for the ultimate health and safety of the child.

Everyone knows that children need a safe, loving stable home to develop and thrive in. They need to learn how to effectively deal with everyday stressors, but more importantly they need to be protedcted from the toxic stress that can cause a lifetime of damage.


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