A pair of excellent pieces in the New York Times recently highlighted the effects of mistreatment of children on their developing brains and behavior.
The bad news is that what’s called “toxic stress”—frequent or continual stress on kids who lack adult protection and support—impacts the brain at the time it’s developing its basic architecture. That makes kids vulnerable to anxiety and depression, as well as more physical ailments, later in life. The good news is that interventions that support kids in adverse situations, often by strengthening the role of parents and teachers in buffering stressful situations, can lower the risk of those problems developing.
For instance, programs that help parents tune in to what children are feeling and make themselves more emotionally available have shown to reduce the incidence of at-risk children acting out in school. And they also increase parental pleasure, the clinical director of one of these programs tells David Bornstein of the Times.
“There are millions of times that children are doing things that parents are missing or misreading,” she adds, “and there’s no joy or delight in their parenting. We want delight! Delight is protective. When a child feels loved and valued by a parent, it buffers the circumstances. We can’t fix poverty but we can buffer the stresses.”
There is also exciting evidence that training teachers to be more tuned in to the effects of toxic stress in children enables them to respond much more effectively to disruptive behavior in the classroom. Recognizing stress and helping kids who are overwhelmed to calm down and get mastery over their feelings reduces the kind of classroom outbursts that often end in suspension and get kids sent to the emergency room.
“Punishing children for misbehavior they don’t know how to control,” Bornstein writes, “is comparable to punishing a child for having a seizure; it adds to the suffering and makes matters worse.” Instead, educators who are trained to recognize the effects of toxic stress understand that disruptive kids aren’t necessarily being willful or defiant, and the best way to stop the behavior is to make them feel safe and help them build resilience.