Toxic Stress Erodes Self-Confidence

Stress is an unavoidable fact of life — not just for adults, but for children too. We use the word informally to refer to feelings of anxiety or unease, but in its scientific sense the term refers to changes that happen in the body when we perceive a challenge or threat.

Stress is the body’s alarm system. In response to a potential stressor, the brain sets off a series of chemical changes throughout the body that give us a short-term increase in energy and stamina. A well-functioning stress system is necessary for a child to meet challenges and cope with adversity throughout life.

In fact, not all stress is bad. Scientists commonly divide stress into three types. Positive stress is a normal part of healthy development. It’s a short-term response to the kind of challenges involved in learning new skills, adjusting to new situations and gaining self-confidence. Tolerable stress is a more potent response to adverse life events such as a natural disaster or the death of a loved one. Under the right circumstances, children can adapt to these events and the body’s stress system is able to return to baseline.

Toxic stress occurs when there is a persistent state of fear or danger. When a child’s stress alarm goes off too often or for too long, it can produce wear and tear on the body and interfere with brain development. Eventually the stress system itself can become unbalanced, no longer able to switch on and off at appropriate times.

Too Many Children Experience Toxic Stress

For many of our community’s children, the stress they encounter most often is not positive stress that results in new skills and greater self-esteem, but toxic stress that leads to increased risk for emotional disorders, behavior problems and poor health.

In January of this year, about 1,100 children in our community were in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services. Seventy-seven percent were removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. Most are now living in foster homes.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Memphis and Shelby County is a program of The Exchange Club Family Center that participates in this process to ensure that the child’s best interests are served.

CASA volunteers are trained advocates who familiarize themselves with a child’s circumstances and represent the child’s interests in court. Our advocates regularly see how children are affected by toxic stress that results from living in conditions of uncertainty, distress and chaos.

Chronic maltreatment has been shown to disrupt children’s stress response system, with long-term effects on children’s ability to cope with life’s challenges and difficulties.

Effects Of Toxic Stress Are Long-Lasting

Early exposure to toxic stress means that even after a child is removed from an unhealthy home environment, he is likely to continue to have developmental problems. He’s unlikely to have experienced the kind of nurturing parenting that promotes emotional adjustment, social competence and self-confidence.

#SelfConfidence and social competence are eroded by toxic stress. Tweet this!

In other words, the harsh conditions foster children first experienced make it difficult for them to adjust emotionally and socially to their new caregivers. Often this leads to placement instability — multiple moves to different homes and different schools — which further contributes to the cycle of adjustment problems. Children with high placement instability fall further and further behind their classmates, score lower on tests and require more educational interventions.

Many foster children have been affected by other risks in addition to maltreatment. They may have an incarcerated parent. Many have a parent with mental illness. Others have a parent with a substance abuse problem or have been exposed to domestic violence. The more risk factors a child faced in his home of origin, the greater his chances of high instability in the foster care system.

CASA volunteers are trained to function as impartial observers focused on what’s best for the child. Working on only one case at a time, our advocates make recommendations to the court about homes, counseling and even community services. CASA’s recommendations for placement are accepted by the court in approximately 95 percent of cases.

By helping the placement process proceed smoothly and remain child-focused, CASA plays an important role in minimizing the harmful stress that could threaten children already at risk and promoting the best possible outcome for the child.

Rebecca Lesley-Paulk is volunteer recruitment and training coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Memphis and Shelby County. This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood.

This article was originally published by the Commercial Appeal.