Holidays, Toxic Stress and the Effects on Young Children

... toxic stress can interfere with the formation of connections and networks that support thinking, learning and brain development. Multiple studies show that toxic stress responses during childhood can occur from a variety of sources ...

The holiday season is officially here, bringing with it the promise of exciting opportunities to relax and unwind, spend quality time with family and friends, and celebrate a brand new year. For many people, finding time to attend parties, confirming final details for vacations, shopping until you drop and putting smiles on kids’ faces are among the primary concerns.

But not everyone will be able to toss their cares aside for the time being and relish in good fortune and cheer. For some adults and children alike, the holidays can unfortunately create an increased amount of stress, making it the least enjoyable time of year.

With adults, a heightened level of stress is expected and considered common throughout these last two months when schedules are tighter than normal, calendars are overflowing with commitments and the pace of work and social activity intensifies. But because more often than not, holiday stress is related to bringing joy to the lives of young children, it is important to understand the differences between positive, tolerable, and toxic responses to stress.

Generally, stress is considered a normal and essential part of human development. It acts as an alarm system for the body to react to threats and challenges and gives the mind the ability to deal with difficult circumstances. Likewise, positive and tolerable stress responses from adults and children are typical, and can be buffered by healthy environments and supportive relationships.

However, toxic stress – or what is more widely known as persistent or prolonged stress – is significantly different. This type of response is difficult to overcome and is prone to have tremendous effects on young children that can last a lifetime.

According to The Urban Child Institute, toxic stress can interfere with the formation of connections and networks that support thinking, learning and brain development. Multiple studies show that toxic stress responses during childhood can occur from a variety of sources, including physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or without adequate adult support.

During the holidays, another trigger of toxic stress response that is perhaps more apparent in our community is chronic poverty. With an overwhelming number of families in the Greater Memphis area enduring economic hardships, it will prove challenging for many parents and children who lack emotional and financial resources to experience the joyful moments that others will enjoy this time of year.

While adults are more equipped to deal with these feelings of anxiety and tension, young children and babies are more susceptible to the damaging effects of toxic stress, as they are still developing the skills needed to cope with adversity. Through research, The Urban Child Institute has identified positive parenting as one solution that helps to protect a child’s emotional, behavioral, and social development when toxic stress responses occur. But sadly, far too many adults in our community face circumstances that make it increasingly difficult to consistently show their children the amount of affection and sensitivity that is needed during prolonged periods of intense stress.

The Urban Child Institute has also often reported that positive early experiences can greatly affect a child’s chances for future achievement, success and happiness as an adult. Similarly, children are more vulnerable to endure long-term effects of negative early experiences too, resulting in toxic stress responses that can lead to behavioral and emotional problems in childhood as well as mental and physical illness later in life.  

In an effort to prevent these outcomes – particularly around the holidays when stressful circumstances are compounded for less fortunate families – organizations such as the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), Angel Tree Network, Mid-South Food Bank, and Salvation Army are just a few of the community resources that exist to provide hope and happiness.

As individuals, simple gestures such as supporting agencies such as these through volunteer efforts or donations can play a huge part in decreasing the amount of worry for families in crisis, and help to create positive, enjoyable experiences for young children who – through no fault of their own – will not have as many opportunities to smile and experience true joy this holiday season.

While it is considered perfectly normal to spend the last few weeks each year unwinding, reflecting on personal achievements and progress, and/or planning for greater success in the New Year, perhaps more beneficial to one’s mental, emotional and spiritual health is making time to take a brief or extended break from the normal routine to direct energy toward uplifting or supporting someone else.

For those currently in a position to list not waking up early enough to snag the best Black Friday deals as a top holiday concern, the process will at the very least remind us that our worries are not as intense as they may seem.

In addition, any act of kindness that is truly selfless will undoubtedly provide an opportunity to show gratitude and appreciation for the precious gift of life; help to create a happy memory or special moment for an adult or child in need; and ultimately reinvigorate your spirit of giving.

And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what the holiday season – or any season for that matter – is really all about?

Tarrin McGhee is the owner of Pique Creative.

This article was originally published by the Tri-State Defender, and is available online at: