Child Abuse Prevention: Toxic Stress Response & Why We Need to Pay Attention

With April upon us, temperatures will rise and warm breezes will blow… spring is in the air. As we look around and see the flowers in bloom and the kids venturing back outdoors to play, we need to acknowledge another symbol likely on the lawns of some of our neighborhood centers or in the gardens of our social-activist neighbors, the blue pinwheel. Many people will see the pinwheel and simply notice the whimsical way it spins in the wind, but there is a deeper meaning behind this seemingly innocent child’s toy… it is the national symbol for Child Abuse Prevention.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and we as members of society need to be aware, alert, and responsive to this traumatic and horrific experience affecting more than 6.6 million children a year. We need not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear, rather we MUST become involved… to ignore these vulnerable children is simply inhumane. With the leading type of child abuse at 28.3% of confirmed cases as physical abuse, followed by sexual abuse at 20.7%, our nation’s children are not simply being ignored, they are being hurt, injured, and forever scarred, physically and mentally.

Child abuse is not a simple issue, it is an on-going, complex, traumatic event that will affect the lives of its victims literally forever. Researchers have recently discovered a dangerous biological syndrome caused by child abuse and neglect called Toxic Stress. Toxic stress triggers hormones that wreak havoc on a developing child’s body and brain. These hormones put them at a greater risk of disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death.

The futures of our abused children are grim because even though swift interventions can make a difference, oftentimes these children have been subjected to repeated, on-going abuse for much longer than we will ever actually know.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has found that a toxic stress response occurs when a child experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence without adequate adult support.

The research states that this kind of prolonged stress response literally disrupts the development of the brain and other organ systems leading to disease and cognitive-impairment throughout life. Meaning that without a quick response and positive adult interventions, even if the abuse itself is not killing our children, the later health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression are doing so.

Exacerbating this toxic stress response even further is when it occurs continually or is triggered by multiple sources. Unfortunately, for most of our child abuse victims, their lives reflect this scenario because child abusers frequently suffer from their own substance abuse or mental health issues exposing their children to a multitude of stressful situations.

Child abuse coupled with Toxic Stress creates an untenable living situation for many of these victims, because in most cases throughout their childhood they are re-victimized again and again whether at the hands of their original abuser, or in the hands of a broken foster care system often responsible for causing as much trauma as the original abuse.

Toxic stress can have damaging effects on our children’s ability to learn, their behavior, and their openness to forming trusting, healthy relationships. Most of our children who have suffered at the hands of an abuser experience extreme symptoms of attachment disorder and a wide variety of other learning disabilities and mental health problems throughout life. Unfortunately so many of our children continue to experience these toxic levels of stress even once removed from their abuser because they are then bounced around between relatives or foster homes with little to no stability or consistency amongst caregivers.

“There is ample evidence that chaotic or unstable circumstances, such as placing children in a succession of foster homes… can result in sustained, extreme activation of the stress response system.” – Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child

According to the Harvard research, when a child’s response systems, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol, are activated in a healthy environment with supportive adults, the physiological effects are buffered and can be decreased quickly. However, for children suffering at the hands of an abuser, the stress response systems are often “turned on” for long periods of time, are severe in nature, and there is no buffering support system available to the victim.

“The child may not remember, but the body remembers.” – Resilience

Although learning to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development, it is a matter of severity, timing, and circumstances. All children will encounter stressful situations in life, but none should have to encounter the level of stress imposed upon them by physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. This epidemic needs to be stopped to protect the future of our society. Although the incidents of child abuse are higher in impoverished areas, this is not a “poor” problem. This abuse is occurring everywhere, in every town, to children in every school.

Our future literally depends on our ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation, so ignoring child abuse is NOT an option. Although you may want to shelter your own kids and try to ignore what is happening around you, you must realize that someone will pay a price for your ignorance and that will likely be your children. As scary as it sounds, your child may already be more aware than you know. They may have a friend who is often sad or has unexplained bruises… it is unfortunate but it is the world we live in. Your children will grow up having to learn with, work with, and co-exist with these young victims as they become our future leaders, so let’s step up now as a society and fight to PREVENT child abuse.

Here are some tips from Daily Mom on spotting and reporting child abuse in your neighborhood – Child Abuse Prevention.

Sources: Prevent Child Abuse America, Harvard University Center On The Developing Child, Resilience, ChildHelp

Photo Credits: Pixabay, Kristin dePaula

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

Kristin Depaula

Kristin is a native Floridian who loves warm weather and sunshine but owns too many scarves and boots. She lives at the World's Most Famous Beach with her husband, 3 boys and enough animals both warm and cold blooded to make up a zoo. She is a practicing attorney who spends her days working with at-risk and delinquent youth and her nights being a Montessori Mama to her independent, strong willed little humans. On the weekends you can find her at soccer games, chasing her boys at the Beach or cooking for her husband who suffers from Crohn's disease but is healing with a healthy diet. In her free time, Kristin loves reading and laying by the pool.

Leave a comment