Buffering Toxic Stress

July 21, 2021
Buffering Toxic Stress

As a primary care provider, promoting strong parent-child relationships and positive parenting behaviors is critical to your role. Research tells us that a child’s early experiences, and the environment in which they are raised, dramatically affect how the brain, and thus the child, develops.

An environment where the child is exposed to chronic adversity, such as neglect or violence, can cause a damaging stress response in the child. Toxic stress is the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships [1]. That stress can affect developing neurons, and actually alter the expression of genes, modifying a child’s development and health in profound ways that increase risk of illness, disease, and other negative outcomes.

However, toxic stress doesn’t have to stay toxic. Studies show that safe, stable, nurturing relationships (SSNRs) buffer the harmful effects of early stress by mitigating a child’s stress response, allowing for healthier brain development [2] as well as better long term physical and mental health outcomes.

By promoting a strong parent-child relationship during well-child visits, you have a unique opportunity to prevent toxic stress. At every visit, you can remind families that the relationship they have with their child can help their child’s brain development and prepare them take on challenges throughout their lives.

January 2021 article in Development and Psychology: Parental buffering in the context of poverty: positive parenting behaviors differentiate young children’s stress reactivity profiles

February 2021 article in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology: Parental Buffering of Stress in the Time of COVID-19: Family-Level Factors May Moderate the Association Between Pandemic-Related Stress and Youth Symptomatology