Psychological or emotional trauma is defined as “damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.”
When Stress is Toxic
The key to understanding how trauma affects young people is to first understand the toxic stress and the mechanism by which it affects developing minds.
Imagine you are in the woods on a beautiful day in Idaho. You are looking at the mountains and listening to the birds, enjoying a relaxing day in nature. Then you turn a corner and see a bear. Immediately your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that processes cognitive thought—shuts down. You have now triggered your fight, flight, or freeze reflex and your entire being focuses on how you will get out of this situation.
Your heart rate increases preparing your body to run. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your system to give you a temporary increase in strength and endurance.
All of this is good–if you are in the woods and there is a bear. But what do you do when you live with the bear?
Kids growing up in adverse situations are living with a bear called toxic stress.
Understanding the Toll Toxic Stress Takes
According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child:
"Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years." (Harvard 2018)
What does that mean? It means that when developing children experience constant stress without the emotional “buffer” of an adult, it affects the way their minds and bodies develop.
The insidious nature of toxic stress is that it creates a muscle memory reflex for kids who are used to living in constant fight-or-flight mode. For example, a child who is often yelled at or witnesses yelling will likely struggle to differentiate between a threat and being called in class by a teacher. When that child hears his name called and his body reacts with a stress response as though he has just seen a bear in the woods, his teacher will likely see a child who doesn’t understand the content, seemingly is not listening or paying attention, or is willful and can’t sit still.
Toxic stress doesn’t happen only in abusive households.
Kids who have a parent battling a serious illness or fear deployment can also experience toxic stress. Toxic stress can come from anything negative situation that creates feelings of helplessness, rage, grief, or anxiety. When those feelings go unchecked over a lengthy period of time, they become traumatic and damaging.
How Can Parents Help
Create a dialogue
The only thing you can count on in life is that it will have hard moments. Your kids will experience things that are difficult whether that is a friend in trouble, losing a loved one, or a global pandemic.
Creating a healthy dialogue about how they are feeling is an important strategy that can allow you to check in with your kids at the early signs of stressful events so you can help them develop resilience.
You do this in small ways, but all the time. Having family dinners, doing activities that they enjoy, and intentionally spending time with your kids are great ways to engender trust and create a safe space for them to talk.
If your child is going through a deeply traumatic event such as sexual assault, losing a parent, witnessing a contentious divorce, or watching a parent struggling with a serious illness you should consider getting them help.
Parents often fear getting help for their kids because they don’t wish to expose themselves to criticism. They often feel that because they love their children so much, they should be able to figure it out and help them through the difficulty.
Traumatic events and toxic stress are life experiences that most people are not equipped to deal with on their own. Mental health professionals like those at Idaho Youth Ranch go through years of training and study to understand how trauma impacts the brain, body, and spirit.
Getting help early will give your kids the healing they need to move past the trauma and the resilience and skills they need the next time life gets hard.
Model Good Coping Mechanisms
Parents are their children’s first teachers. Your behaviors and attitudes will teach your kids more than anything you can ever tell them. If you are experiencing trauma, it is okay to say that you are having a hard time. Tell your kids it is okay not to be okay and that it is brave to ask for help.
“Toxic Stress.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 23 Oct. 2018, developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/.