Sheltering children from toxic stress

It is important for parents not to impose too much stress on their child. — Photos: SAIFUL BAHRI/The Star

CHILDREN from dysfunctional families are often victims of toxic stress that eventually affects their social life in adulthood.

Malaysian Paediatric Association past president Dr N. Thiyagar said the condition occurred when a child experiences strong, frequent or prolonged adversity.

He said this affected the brain structure and chemistry, and resulted in various illnesses in adulthood.

“Physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence or family economic hardships are some of the negative experiences children go through.

“Without adequate adult support, such prolonged activation of the stress response can disrupt the development of the brain and other organ systems.

“It also increases the risk for stress-related diseases as well as heart diseases, diabetes, asthma and high-blood pressure well into the adult years,” he said.

Dr Thiyagar added that on the other hand, positive stress response was normal and essential for the growth and development of a child.

He said positive stress was short-lived and mild, and the child is supported through the stressful situation with reassurance and parental protection.

“Examples of positive stress felt by a child is before performances or school exams.

“Such stress levels push one up and they tend to perform better in their endeavours,” he added.

A supportive and positive relationship with caring adults during childhood can help a child cope with toxic stress.
A supportive and positive relationship with caring adults during childhood can help a child cope with toxic stress.

However, Dr Thiyagar said when toxic stress response occurs continuously, some children when they grow up may also depend on substance abuse, and some fall into depression, while some become anti-social.

He said research showed that a supportive and positive relationship with caring adults during childhood could prevent the damaging effects of toxic stress.

“Some parents or caregivers may say that they have gone through similar situations and survived toxic stress, and expect the child to do the same

“However, some children develop resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, while others do not,” he added.

He said the brain always remembers what happened in their childhood and this changes the ecosystem in the body, and for those not able to handle stress well, it becomes a major problem in adulthood.

Therefore, he said, adults, parents, doctors, teachers and the community had roles to play in order to support children suffering in such an environment.

“It is important for all parties to come together to reduce exposure of young children to extremely stressful conditions, such as recurrent abuse, chronic neglect and repeated conflict.

“A supportive relationship with caring adults early in life can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response,” he added.

Dr Thiyagar added that parenting skills courses, subsidised child care centres and problem-solving were some of the remedies.

He added that doctors, especially paediatricians who come in contact with children, must be aware and pick out children living in such an environment.

“Paediatricians are in contact with children and it is easier for them to explore their backgrounds, and thus plan the best way to deal with the issue and refer cases to the Social Welfare Department.

“More non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must focus on this aspect and not only provide ad-hoc assistance, but must also tackle such long-term issues.

“They (NGOs) must not only provide monetary aid, but ensure that children in such situations develop resiliency,” he added.

Dr Thiyagar added that teachers also played an important role in addressing such issues, especially during the Parent-Teacher Association meetings.

He said it was important to remind parents not to impose too much stress on the child to get straight As, as it is important to set realistic goals and children must be motivated at all times.

“It is important for children to communicate with friends, learn problem-solving skills, make new friends and figure out how to divert attention to new situations,” he added.

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