Advice from experts on the development of toxic stress among children

Why chronic pressure can harm a child’s growth and how to avoid it.

UNICEF/China/2017/Li Manwei

If children don't have their needs met, over and over, they will have stress hormones in their body for a long period of time. This is toxic,  but can be prevented with proper care.

A child who doesn't have their needs met will go through something that is called toxic stress.

Anna Maria Chiesa, Ph.D.

For a newborn baby, feeling hungry is a threat to their life. So their perception that something is wrong sets off the crying alarm. If the baby has an adult who can tell what the crying means and tend to their needs, the baby will develop a memory of satisfaction. The levels of stress hormones go down and the cycle goes on. A child who is not satisfied will have stress hormones in their body for longer periods and this is toxic. Little by little, the child becomes irritable, lethargic, loses weight, loses brain synapses, which is the connection between two brain cells. The branching process that enables the contact among different areas of the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain involved in complex functions such as language and problem solving) will be damaged in a child living under such conditions.  

Anna Maria Chiesa, Ph.D., Nurse and specialist in Community Health, University of São Paulo

A toxic environment is a very serious thing for children; it's an environment full of stress.

Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.

You know, children have radar, they know when there are arguments between parents, when there's tension in the home, when they're seeing violence in the community. These are toxic for their development. When they are growing up in intensive situations of violence or the opposite of that, which is neglect. All of these things are toxic to their healthy growth and development. 

Joan Lombardi, Ph.D., International specialist in Child Development and Public Policy

 The children whose development is at risk are children who live in very difficult circumstances.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.

Not a bad day here or a bad day there, but chronic, constant days, weeks, months, years where there's very little positive interaction, where the level of stress is so high, particularly for people in deep poverty, or in violent environments, or dealing with serious mental illness, like depression or substance abuse. Where there's no time left to think about next week or tomorrow. It's trying to get through the day. And where the home may be very disorganized, not because parents don't love their children, but because they're overwhelmed by their own life circumstances.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., Director, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University: 

We fail to support parents in providing them the support they need for their children. 

Pia Rebello Britto, Ph.D.

Every parent wants the best for their child. And they want to create an environment that will foster their children's growth and development. Oftentimes as societies, we fail to support parents in that function. That's when we start to immediately see a sort of child's toxic environment building. 

Pia Rebello Britto, Ph.D., Global Director, Early Childhood Development, UNICEF

When you are able to provide the necessary care for children to develop, you are certainly preparing a better child for the future. 

Dr. José Martins Filho

It will reduce violence, neuroses, anxieties, school issues, difficulties to get a good job, a good relationship. Dealing with children with care during such a period means striving to improve society. It's a way to protect humankind. 

Dr. José Martins Filho, President, Brazilian Academy of Pediatrics

Support us

Together we can improve the well-being of every child.