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Toxic stress in children

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Your responsibility as a caregiver, whether you are a teacher, Day-care mum, parent or foster mum, is to help build a child's resilience.  

Stress is a natural response to an unpleasant change in the immediate environment. Just like inflammation, it is a normal and essential part of healthy development - it can save your life. 

A positive stress response is a stress a child will feel the first day they go to school and being separated from a caregiver. It is characterised by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. The stress will pass if an adult comforts the child. They learn valuable coping mechanisms, which comes in handy when you are an adult.

Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects. 

But when stress goes unchecked, continues ( such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect etc), and there is no adult to help the child cope or comfort them, it becomes toxic stress. We see toxic stress in poverty-stricken or abusive environments. It harms the development of the brain and other organs of a growing child and therefore it is very important to know how to help these children. Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development.  

According to Dr Jack Shonkof, children need to become resilient. Resilience in children helps carry children through the worst situations.  

How can we help children become more resilient?

The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adults.

These relationships provide protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. It helps to build key capacities, like the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behaviour. This in turn enables children to respond adaptively to adversity. This combination of supportive relationships, skill-building, and positive experiences is the foundation of resilience.

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