How stress can be toxic for children

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Growing up with challenging circumstances can be very stressful for kids. And now, mounting research shows that constant stress can build up and become toxic.

It can even be harmful as kids grow up, turning into illness well into adulthood.

But now, some kids in preschool are learning more than just math and science - they are learning how to manage stress.

This approach follows a recent study that suggests stress early in life can have toxic effects.

"We don't have exact figures on the number of kids exposed to toxic stress, but we do know that it numbers in the hundreds of thousands," said Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at Boston Children's Hospital.

He said kids exposed to domestic violence, bullying in school and neighborhood violence are most at risk.

Without intervention, Nelson said toxic stress can damage young brains and bodies.

"We know that high levels of toxic stress that occur early in life and then continue can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease as well," he said.

Scientists are looking into toxic stress bio-markers that might lead to better diagnosis and early treatment.

In the meantime, doctors recommend screenings, therapy, parenting classes and other services to help prevent long-term stress damage.

"Dealing with and preventing toxic stress is the most important thing that we can do in medicine," pediatrician Tina Hahn Caro said.

Now, more and more communities and schools are trying different strategies to help kids cope with ongoing stress.

Preschool mental health specialist, Laura Martin, said the kids do breathing exercises and other activities to take a gentle approach to fighting toxic stress.

"They have the breathing activities. They have the peace table. They have the soft and safe space in the classroom where they can go have their big emotions," Martin said. "There is just a variety of different really intentional techniques that we use to help kids who have a history of adversity be regulated inside our classroom walls."

The idea behind all of these approaches is to intervene early with kids so that they have better coping mechanisms as they grow into adulthood.
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