Unwinding Toxic Stress

by Jendi Coursey

Imagine you’re a teacher in an elementary school classroom. You went into teaching to help kids learn, grow, and thrive, but lately you’ve been thinking about leaving the profession because you feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the high-need students who lack focus, need constant reminding about daily activities, fidget endlessly, can’t stay in their seats, talk at inappropriate times, and are forever distracted by minor diversions. These students get most of your attention while the rest of the class waits for instruction. No matter what you do, it feels like you make little progress.

It Isn’t Always ADHD

In recent years, many children with these behaviors have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and medicated as a result. However, what researchers are beginning to understand is that many of these maladaptive coping skills come from toxic stress and require a very different approach if we these children are to live healthy, productive lives.

According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, toxic stress is the “prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain.” Through no fault of their own, these children are full of stress hormones with nowhere to go. They need to learn how to recognize they’ve been triggered and coping mechanisms that allow them to return to a healthy baseline. Instead, many of them do not know how to regulate themselves and they lack home environments with supportive adult relationships to teach them.

Good Stress Versus Bad Stress

What’s commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response is fine, even essential, in short bursts. A positive response to stress includes a brief increase in heart rate and mild elevations in stress hormone levels. This could be triggered by being asked to read aloud in class or joining a new sports team. A moderate stress response increases the stress hormone levels and keeps children on alert. Experiences like a serious illness in the family or a natural disaster can trigger a moderate response. When children have supportive adults to help them understand and adapt to their experiences, the damaging effects of this stress can be lessened. But when children have strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity, the toll on their physical and mental health can be dramatic and lifelong.

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 University Center on the Developing Child

Helping Children Cope

Thanks to research that is properly identifying the causes of maladaptive behaviors in children, we can now design programs that address the roots of the problem. Child advocates like us are helping policymakers, healthcare professionals, educators, and others re-think their approach so children are not unfairly punished or inappropriately treated.

At FNC, our therapeutic classrooms, mental health programs, and parent education groups help families build healthy social and emotional responses to the toxic stress in their lives. We provide positive, healthy activities to help rewire children’s brains. We shift children’s thinking from “What’s wrong with me?” to recognizing their sad, angry, frustrated, distracted, and/or irritated feelings as a normal response to difficult circumstances.

If you want to learn more, call us. We’re here to help.


About the Author


Jendi Coursey