7 Ways to Help a Child Deal with Toxic Stress

The cost to our society is great when our children suffer.

Posted May 24, 2019

We are hearing a great deal about “toxic stress” in the news. From children being separated from parents at the Mexican border, to the rising rates of anxiety and depression in children, to the growing research on how adverse childhood events (ACEs) lead to symptoms of trauma, there is no denying children are suffering. Toxic stress on the mind and body is caused by overwhelming emotions coupled with a lack of emotional support from calm and caring adults who understand how to respond appropriately.

What kind of environment leaves a child susceptible to traumatic stress?

  • Traumatic events like divorce, abuse, neglect, bullying, racism, substance abuse, gender dysphoria, or any situation that leaves a child feeling emotionally overwhelmed and alone for sustained periods of time.
  • Separations where children have literally been torn away from their parents, like what is still happening at the Mexican border.
  • Emotional abandonment, like when a parent is unable to respond to their child at moments of true need.

Why do situations like these cause so much trauma? The subjective feeling of safety is paramount for healthy development. When a child feels unsafe, a slew of physiological changes takes place that negatively affects the mind, brain, and body.

Imagine for a moment what it feels like when you are terrified. Your muscles are tense. Your heart is racing. You can't breathe as well. Do you feel like learning, engaging in projects, or socializing with others? No! When children and adults alike are terrified, we want to run away, hide, and find safety again as soon as possible so we feel better. When we are scared we feel vulnerable and insecure. After a while, we feel hopeless, numb and even dead inside.

So, what can be done to aid children experiencing toxic stress? It’s all about helping a child feel safe through connections with caring and emotionally attuned adults.

Here are 7 ways to help a child deal with toxic stress:

1. Be with them: connection is soothing.

John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, taught us that children need to feel safe and secure to thrive. It may seem elementary, but the first aspect of creating safety for a child is being there so a connection can be established. A child with toxic stress is scared (even if they don’t appear so on the outside like how a bully or aggressive child may present). Simply having someone in the room can be a comfort even when there is push-back from the child. Being alone heightens fear.

2. Be gentle so as not to inadvertently startle or jar a child.

A suffering child is fragile and prickly from their hyper or hypo-aroused nervous system. We live in a very left-brain dominant culture where we don’t talk nearly enough about emotional safety conveyed through right brain communications. Right-brained communications are the non-verbal cues we unconsciously pick up from one another. Right brain communications include tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. Adults should speak in a gentle low calm voice with soft eyes and slow movements to avoid jarring or startling a fragile nervous system. Just think about how you like to be spoken to when you are upset.

3. Play with children when possible: play fosters safe connection.

Playing feels good and healthy for all people no matter what age. According to Polyvagal theory, play stimulates the social engagement system of the vagus nerve, the body’s largest nerve. Play relaxes a hyper or hypo-aroused nervous system. Play helps a child feel better and calm down. But play involves so much more than a game. It involves a connection, smiling, speaking with a cheery and playful tone of voice, and movement. All of those actions calm a child. It may seem counter-intuitive to initiate play with a child under stress, but if they are receptive, it gives the nervous system a chance to calm down. Even if for a little while, a moment of playfulness is good.

4. Help children name their feelings.

Putting language on emotions helps calm down the nervous system. We can use stories, our own personal stories or ones we create, to help children put language on their emotions. For example, an adult could share with a traumatized child, “When I was little, my mother went away for a long time. She was sick, so she had to go to where doctors could help her. But, I was so sad and scared. And, sometimes I even felt angry at her for going away. I learned all those feelings were natural.” There are many ways to help children put language on their feelings. You can show them drawings of little faces with many feelings and they can point to the ones they relate to. You can help a child name their feelings with games, drawings, and puppets.

5. Help children express their feelings.

Emotions have impulses with energy and this energy needs to be expressed. For example, if a child is in danger, their brain will trigger fear with an impulse to run. Fear is a core emotion that is designed to send signals to many organs in the body, so a person can run to safety and survive. But if a child is in a situation where they cannot run to safety, like being restrained by border patrolmen or abused by a relative who threatens them if they run and tell, all that energy gets trapped in the body and leads to symptoms of traumatic stress. Helping a child express their emotions can be done in a variety of creative ways, such as the through art, play, stories, puppets, or by helping the child verbally or physically express themselves. You should feel free to experiment and take your cues from the child for what works best. Cues that a child is positively responding include expressions of relief, smiles, a relaxed look, and a desire to play and connect more. If what your trying is not helping, you’ll see a child’s face and body demonstrate more tension, sadness, anger, rigidity, and withdrawal. 

6. When a child accepts them, give hugs and other physical affection.

Holding, rocking, stroking, hugging, and swaddling can help soothe a stressed nervous system. Again, take your cues from the child. If they don’t like something, don’t do it. You can tell by the way the child looks and reacts if they are responding positively or negatively. If they stiffen, it’s a protest. If they relax and soften, that’s a green light.

7. Reassure a child as best as possible and help them make sense of what’s happening.

A little reassurance goes a long way. Be explicit! Say things like, “You will be ok,” “This feeling is temporary,” “You are not alone,” “It’s not your fault,” and, “You don’t deserve this.” Don’t lie to a child but do look for truthful ways you can reassure them that they are safe now and will not be alone. Explain what has happened and what is currently happening. For example, in the case of parental separation, “Mommy and daddy are safe and soon you will see them again. Until then, we’ll be together every day and I’ll take care of you.” Reassuring a child that they didn’t do anything bad and that they matter helps because children internalize shame, a sense that they are bad or unworthy when they feel bad. 

Humans are wired for connection and thrive in conditions of safety and security. When safety and security are compromised, we must do everything we can to restore a child’s sense of safety and security as fast as possible. There are many other resources available that teach adults how to minimize stress and foster recovery in children. The cost to our society is great when our children suffer.

References

Hughes, D., Golding, K., Hidson, J. (2019). Healing Relational Trauma with Attachment-Focused Interventions: Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy with Children and Families. W.W.Norton: New York