Why you should care
Your kids’ surroundings might be causing them harm — and you might not even be able to see it.
We want to protect our children from harm. But we can’t always. Cars crash down the street. A house catches fire around the corner. Maybe a friend gets hurt at the playground. Families stress over money, even going hungry.
Older kids have a better grasp of what’s going on around them and how to cope with stress. But young kids and toddlers who aren’t very verbal can’t express their thoughts and struggle to process what they see around them — especially a dramatic incident.
Continued exposure to stressful events without enough adult support to counteract the problems can lead to a diagnosis of toxic stress — an extreme diagnosis, usually given to kids in abusive or tough economic situations. Such stress has risen to enough concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics launched the Center on Healthy, Resilient Children this summer, and is pushing doctors to screen for damaging toxic stress symptoms, even in babies.
“The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression,” Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child notes. “Research also indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.”
Toxic stress in children may seem like an extreme for many families, but even in the best circumstances, stressful situations arise. Especially in summer when kids are outside more, with their parents more, outside the safe confines of day care or their homes.
How can parents help their young children navigate problems in a world they’re just beginning to know?
The experts from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles have four suggestions for talking to toddlers and young kids about stressful situations.
Even if your 2-year-old can barely form sentences, he can still soak in everything around him — including big events, and parents’ reactions to them.
- Stay close. A reassuring presence helps children feel safe.
- Explain what happened. Not graphically — use simple language and soothing tones, and explain what you are doing to keep them safe. Even if they don’t understand what’s going on, your voice and tone can calm them.
- Play act. Kids process through playing. If your daughter witnessed a car accident and starts re-enacting the scene with her Matchbox vehicles, jump in with a rescue ambulance that comes to make the accident victims feel better.
- Don’t duck out. Tell your kids when you’re leaving and reassure them that you’ll return. Leaving without saying anything, even if they cry over your absence, can make them more anxious.