Are the Words "Toxic Stress" Toxic? Re-thinking the Narrative About Early Life Stress

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The concepts of “toxic stress” and “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) have captured professional and public attention in recent years. While this has helped to bring more resources and interest to early childhood issues, it has also resulted in some harmful language and imagery that depicts children, families, or entire communities as “broken” or beyond healing and resilience. In our concern about adversity, are we selling short the capacity of individuals and communities to heal and grow? Are we doing more harm than good by inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes about children and families of color? Join a conversation with other concerned professionals about how to shift the narrative around early life stress to one that focuses on root causes of stress and celebrates the resilience of children, families, and communities

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This is an interesting conversation. I think the key is that the systems are causing stress- and the people in children's lives can be effective buffers. The new work out of the CDC is really supporting that. It acknowledges that we can't get rid of the toxic stressors until we look head on at the systems that perpetuate inequities.

No surprise that it is easy to sense blame- and that language can invite blame - because that is a product of our current systems. I think when we keep the focus on how the systems work and how we can build on strengths and create support networks that create buffer zones we aim where we really need to work.  In some ways I worry that these conversations, while necessary, distract us from the real work of dismantling the systems and replacing them with systems in which where you were born, the color of your skin, the size of your wallet, or your claim to any one identity doesn't limit your opportunity to thrive.

And it doesn't happen all at once but systems can be changed. As an example, in a recent conversation with a family support worker, she was reflecting on her shift in practice. Previously, per the system when a student missed a lot of school the family got a series of letters, each more threatening than the one before. (No surprise, that didn't work). Then she had an aha. "We don't punish children anymore, why are we punishing the parents?"... so now instead of threatening letters, the parents are invited in for dinner to focus - together with the school - on what will help the child be successful. Parents come in with arms crossed. Leave asking for a hug. And...no surprise - attendance improves.  This is a system change that was brought about through shifts in how adults learn to see outside the system and gain power to make the changes that benefit everyone: child, family, school and community.

In sharing this story, the family support worker stretched the imagination of others shaped by the system. Now they too will shift their practice. And it will make a difference for more children, families and schools.

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