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Be Well: Family Experience with Toxic Stress

According to 2012 data from the federal government, one in four children in Ohio have experienced two or more so called “adverse experiences.” These are things that can range from poverty or abuse to parental divorce or incarceration.  Mental health professionals say these are also the types of experiences that can put a child at risk for something known as “toxic stress.”

As part of the ideastream series Healthy Beginnings, associate producer Stephanie Jarvis delves further into the issue of toxic stress and explores its impact on one local family.

This reporting is part of the Be Well series, Healthy People, Healthy Places – Healthy Beginnings. We followed up with an in-depth conversation on WCPN's Sound of Ideas. Tune in on Friday, July 1st  to ideas at 8:30pm as we dive deeper into the story on television. That airs on WVIZ/PBS.

“Ready for your next turn?”

“Yep,six. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…”

Eight- year old Brandon advances six spots on what looks like a typical board game.

“So this one says if you have felt alone lately, go to the desert.”

But it’s not monopoly or a game of clue Brandon’s playing as he moves his game piece to the part of the board marked desert.

“So when have you felt alone?”

“Um… I felt alone when my mom and everyone else left me at the house for the rest of the day.”

“When you were alone at the house? Yea, how did that make you feel?”

“I didn’t care…”

Brandon’s just a few minutes into his weekly session with OhioGuidestone therapist, Heidi Corso. The two have been working together for a year and a half.

“He was in a very toxic environment,” says Corso. “Pretty significant.. very physical a lot of weapons. Pretty scary stuff for him. Very stressful.”

“These experiences that they have over those first years can play a critical role in their developmental trajectories,” says Professor Charles Nelson from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

He says when children experience things like domestic violence; physical or sexual abuse; neglect; live with a parent abusing drugs or alcohol; or undergo other traumatic events, they can be at risk for toxic stress.

“The distinction between tolerable stress and toxic stress often has to do with the lack or the presence of a buffering relationship,” explains Nelson. “If it’s clearly a stressful experience, a lot of arguing screaming, hitting things like that…and there’s a lack of a supportive relationship, that combination is what we usually think of as toxic stress.”

Described as the body’s response to negative events or experiences that are either powerful, repeated, or prolonged - toxic stress can put a child at risk for early mental health issues. It can also have an effect on a person’s mental and physical well-being over a lifetime.

“What happens that in all cases when confronted with a threat, our body releases a stress hormone that can have an impact on the brain,” Nelson says. “But the concern is, under cases of toxic stress it happens repeatedly and chronically. And the brain starts to be negatively impacted and then permanently impacted by exposure to this hormone.”

Two years ago after Brandon was placed in foster care, his great aunt, Teri Willette,  took legal custody of him.

“I had raised my four kids from birth, so I had the early start with them,” Teri remarks. “Him coming at five with his issues was a lot more than I expected. He was a very angry kid. He… didn’t know how to be sometimes, except for angry at things. With the help of the therapy and everything like that, we’ve done a tremendous turnaround.”

Brandon’s therapy sessions with Heidi Corso are designed to help him learn strategies for coping with his anger and expressing his feelings.  Corso says she also works one-on-one with Willette to help her learn how to be an understanding and strong caregiver.

“She really cares about Brandon. She really understood the impact of what he had been through and really wanted to understand that at a deeper level,” explains Corso. “And working with me and processing how that affects him and really trying to understand that and not get frustrated with his behaviors. So she would not only process with me in the session but she would follow through in between appointments and really work on those suggestions and those things and that’s what really helped.”

Additional Information & Resources:

Toxic Stress, as defined by Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, involves the "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."

Dr. Ben Kearney, a psychologist from OhioGuidestone, explains more about toxic stress and its impact here.

Healthy Beginnings multiple media coverage from the ideastream health reporting team

Harvard University - Center on the Developing Child: Toxic Stress

Boston Children's Hospital: Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience


Healthy Beginnings Resource Page

stephanie.jarvis@ideastream.org | 216-916-6340