My almost-empty-nest lasted all of seven months. Many of you followed along while I mourned my first-born taking flight and leaving for college. Fall came, and my daughter and I were in a rhythm. The house stayed clean, meals were easy and healthy, and the toilets were always flushed. She would come home from school, practice piano and study; I would come home from work, exercise and twiddle my thumbs. So, I applied to graduate school. I had time on my hands, and I’d put this dream off for far too long. I could hardly wait to get started.
Whoa! I was not prepared for two things: the amount of homework I suddenly had (goodbye thumb twiddling) and the fact that my son would call me, barely into his spring semester, to say he needed to come home. I warned him that coming home after he’d been away and on his own for even a short time, would not be the same. He came back. The adjustment has been hard for him, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be for me. Parenting an adult child may be my most difficult challenge yet. Of course, I am writing this after we’ve been snowed in for three days together and after I’ve just learned that on the night we had an ice storm, while I was sound asleep and thinking he was safe in his bed, he got up at 2:00 am and walked to a friend’s house to hang out for a few hours. He did this in an ice storm. Be still my heart. I really liked not knowing everything his 19-year-old self did. I didn’t worry.
Stress. Life is full of it. How we, as adults, handle it sets the tone of our home. You know this. Some stress is good and can have a positive impact on our lives. Some stress is bad, but most of it is temporary and manageable, and we quickly move on from it. If you’re like me, even this kind of everyday stress can make you edgy. When I’m overloaded and feel stressed, I am less patient and far more likely to snap at my kids. They think I’m mad, I call it ‘frustrated.’ I’m not the best parent in these times. Admit it or not, I know you understand.
The type of stress I’m most concerned about is ‘toxic stress.’ It refers to negative stress in an environment that is intense and long-lasting. Toxic stress is a familiar term in the world of pediatrics, education and child psychology. A simple internet search on toxic stress and the developing brain will take you to bodies of research that show that environments of toxic stress are particularly damaging to young children. Toxic stress might be caused by child abuse (physical, emotional or sexual), chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse, mental illness of caregivers, or exposure to violence. It can also occur in long-lasting, constant stress felt by families who experience economic hardship. For little ones in the home, constant, high levels of stress, in the absence of adequate protection and support from adults, can change their brain’s architecture. This impacts how it develops and has long-term consequences for learning, behavior, physical and mental health, and chronic impairment in the adult years.
When we experience stressful situations, our body’s stress response system activates and our brain and body both go into an ‘alert’ state. Physically, there is a rush of adrenaline, our heart rates increase, and the levels of stress hormones increase. These are all healthy responses that will help us deal with the situation at hand. Children in toxic stress environments, who have no adult helping to buffer them from the stressful situation(s), stay in this heightened alert state. The elevated stress levels impact the areas of learning and reasoning. The brain’s ability to make meaningful connections at a time when it should be doing so at its most rapid rate is hindered. This ‘window of time’ closes quickly in brain development and cannot be recaptured.
The good news for these children is that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible are critical in preventing and reversing the damage caused by toxic stress. According to Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, childhood stress becomes harmful when it is prolonged and when adults do not interact in ways that make children feel safe and emotionally connected. The research clearly shows that children can be protected from the most damaging effects of stress when parents are taught how to respond appropriately to their needs. In times that parents are not able to provide that response, other adults in that child’s life are vital.
This means you and I have a role to play in the lives of children we know. The impact of toxic stress on a child can be avoided when their environments are nurturing, stable and engaging. Our community can provide these places where positive adult support is available– outside of our homes, places like child care centers, schools, churches and after-school programs play an essential role in providing this support. The Children & Family Resource Center is part of a community-wide network of human service providers that are working with families to address the stressors and to help them create loving and nurturing environments for children.