Toxic Stress and Its Sources

by | Apr 22, 2014

Toxic stress in families with young children is rarely the product of a single cause, but a confluence of factors that contribute to a breakdown in familial bonding. Outright abuse or neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse or depression in the family are obvious signs of that breakdown, and effectively undercut the parent-child bond as a crucial source of emotional stability for young children. But even these can be seen as indicators of problems on a larger social and economic scale.

In many cases, young parents struggling with the fallout of their own adverse childhood experiences lack strong executive function skills because they have been ill prepared to develop essential qualities of self-control and emotional regulation, task focus, resilience and empathy. Such parents find themselves insufficiently prepared to manage their own households and family routines, and often have an inadequate sense of the social, emotional and cognitive needs of their own children. This creates a sense of ambient instability in the family and works against children’s need for security and consistency, leading to further disruptions in healthy skill formation in the critical early years of life.

Toxic stress is also a recognized byproduct of economic uncertainty in the family. Food and housing insecurity reduces parents’ abilities to allocate time and resources to forming quality attachments with young children. This is often exacerbated when low-income families live in communities that lack sufficient social and material resources, and where isolation of parents is all too common. In Nebraska, where approximately 42 percent of children under age 5 live in low-income households, this is an issue of particular concern. Research on a national level also indicates that school-age children of parents with unstable employment are more likely to “act out” in the classroom, and may have as much as a 15 percent higher chance of being held back a grade. Naturally, this factor not only influences individual children’s chances to succeed in school, but also compromises the effectiveness of our public education system on a much larger scale.  

Mitigating the Effects
Given the size of the social and economic issues that contribute to toxic stress in families with very young children, what can realistically be done to mitigate its short- and long-term effects? While there is no single answer to that question, perhaps the greatest promise resides in finding ways to increase the resiliency of under-resourced families. High-quality early childhood programs that adopt a whole-family approach are proven to be demonstrably effective. Such programs help build social, emotional and cognitive competencies in young children, and focus on building the capacity of parents as caregivers and providers for their families 

Here in Nebraska, the Sixpence Early Learning Fund supports programs that put high-quality early childhood environments within the reach of struggling families and provide home visitation and parenting education services that build stronger, more meaningful attachments between parents and children. One Sixpence site, the Bryan Community Focus Program, even enables young parents to continue their formal education, increasing their chances of achieving economic self-sufficiency and a stable home environment for their young children.

Similarly, the national Educare network—now with four operating locations in Nebraska (two in Omaha, one in Lincoln and one in Winnebago)—provides early care facilities for at-risk children from birth to age 5, and also is a resource for building family resiliency. Educare’s highly qualified staff develops strong relationships with families in need, connecting them with physical health, mental health, nutritional, social and other essential community services.

High-quality early childhood services can’t address every factor that contributes to toxic stress in families with young children. But programs such as Sixpence and Educare can do much to mitigate those effects by creating safe, developmentally positive environments for young children, and by promoting healthier, stronger families that will be more resilient to the environmental stressors that might otherwise overwhelm them. In the absence of a cure-all for the social and economic pressures we all face, any measure that is proven to build more capable, self-sufficient individuals and families shouldn’t be ignored.

Photo: Educare at Indian Hill, Omaha

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