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Toxic stress — its effect on genes and future generations


I’ve written about the negative effects of toxic stress in previous posts. It’s a topic of great concern to me, as I see the impact of this form of stress on many children with whom we work.

A *recent article written by a neurologist in South Africa, Barak Morgan, explains how negative signals from a child’s environment contributes epigenetic markers in the DNA during early brain development. This happens even before the child is born. It is during this time that the part of the brain that helps to regulate emotions and aggression control, important factors for success in life. These pathways become difficult to positively change as the brain develops.

A Canadian researcher discovered that rats who were licked and groomed immediately after birth, influenced their response to stress. Those who did not receive this type of attention, had more “epigenetic marks on the brain’s major stress gene”. This research concluded that it did not matter if the grooming and licking was done by the biological mother or another rat.

The researcher explained that if toxic stress affects the DNA, then future generations are impacted and thus, making it challenging to stop the cycle.

Exposure to stress is not the concern, but prolonged and repeated exposure to stress along with disconnected parenting, is what increases a child’s risk.

It’s important to note here, that exposure to toxic stress is not determinant of a child’s future success, but it is a risk factor and should be considered as part of the mental health assessment of children where there are concerns.

Here are some factors that can contribute to toxic stress:

neglect or abuse
inconsistent parenting
instability of living arrangements
mental or physical illness of parents
domestic violence
prenatal exposure to drugs, alcohol

Parents, caregivers, teachers and anyone in a child’s environment can play a significant role in decreasing the negative impact of toxic stress. Responsiveness, attentiveness, stability are important combatants. Social workers and other mental health professionals can assist by educating parents and guardians on the importance of positive nurturance, stability and relationship building with their children. Social workers can also assist in decreasing some of the risk factors mentioned above, by helping families to access resources.

Parent-child Interactive therapy is extremely helpful for children who’ve been exposed to toxic stress. It helps to calm them down, increases the attachment with the parent as well as helps parents set appropriate boundaries with the child.

I suspect that the more scientists research and discover how toxic stress changes the brain, there will be even more findings on how to positively change the brain to improve the lives of children.

Lisa R. Savage, LCSW and Rebecca Roekbe, LCSW, therapists at the Center for Child Development, will be conducting an online webinar on Toxic Stress for professionals and parents. We’ll announce the date and registration soon. If you work with children or are a parent, this will be a very helpful workshop. CEU’s will be offered as well.

*”Biological embedding of early childhood adversity: Toxic stress and the vicious cycle of poverty in South Africa”

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Lisa Savage
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