I was in line at the deli counter after work one evening last week. The deli was understaffed and there was quite a line, so, I found myself people watching for several minutes. I watched two couples who hadn’t seen each other in quite a while get caught up on what had been happening in their lives. I witnessed an older gentleman give up on trying to pronounce Gruyere, relying instead on just pointing at the block of cheese through the glass counter. Then, I noticed a beautiful little girl. She appeared to be four or five years old. I first noticed her because of the natural ringlets in her hair, and then, because she was unselfconsciously doing a little dance while waiting for her mother’s deli number to be called.
Her mother and her father appeared to be in conflict. The mother wanted the father to place her deli order while she did the rest of the shopping. He didn’t want to and was in a separate line getting a sub sandwich for himself. The girl was adorable, and I wasn’t the only one being entertained by her movements. I caught grins on the faces of several of the others waiting in line. Our grins quickly turned to frowns as we heard a voice snap, “Quit it! Can’t you be still for even one minute?” The little girls face dropped as she heard her mother’s words. She looked as if she’d been slapped. She said quietly, “But, Mama…I’m just dancing.” To which her mother replied, “I said, quit it! Now get out of my sight…and go stand with your father, if he won’t help me, at least he can watch you.” The Mom didn’t make eye contact with the girl, so she didn’t see the hurt that was so evident to the rest of us. The situation got worse when the girl arrived at her father’s side. He looked at her and said, “Leave me alone, go stand with your mother.” To which the mother replied, “Oh great! Just great, I’m stuck with her all day and you can’t even manage to pitch in for 5 minutes!” In the matter of a few moments, the little girl went from happy to sullen and withdrawn. My heart just broke for her. She didn’t know her mother and father’s displeasure was with each other, we all watched her internalize it and blame herself. I placed my order and went on with my shopping, but it was hard to shake the image of the little dancer girl. I hoped that what I witnessed was a rare lapse in parenting, not an example of how the little dancer girl was regularly treated.
The very next day, I headed to New Orleans for the Zero to Three Conference. At the conference, I attended a session led by Dr. Sarah Watamura, a professor at the University of Denver and an Aspen Ascend Fellow. At that session, I learned the fear I was feeling for the little dancer girl is well founded. It turns out that childhood toxic stress can be the cause of serious health issues and mental health difficulties later in life. A recent study shows childhood toxic stress can shorten a person’s life expectancy by as many as 20 years. Toxic stress is strong, persistent activation of the body’s stress response without the buffering protection provided by a responsive supportive relationship. It is worsened in conditions where children do not get consistent support from their caretakers. Extreme poverty, neglect, abuse, violence, and severe maternal depression are some of the things that can create toxic stress in children. For those children, severe consequences can result in cognitive deficits, academic problems, emotional problems, and health problems.
The caring and supportive relationship with a parent or caregiver is the number one shield against toxic stress. Having a strong relationship with a parent or caregiver can help the child manage their feelings and calm their stress reactions, helping to build resilience in the child. The quality of a caregiver’s interaction with a child is a key building block for healthy emotional, social and even physical development. Research shows that something as subtle as a parent’s facial expression and tone of voice will affect even a young infant. One of the realities of dealing with children who have been exposed to toxic stress is that many of their parents were raised in the same kind of environment, making it difficult to break the cycle. There are promising treatments for children and parents who have been exposed to toxic stress. For more information, click here for a report compiled by Early Childhood Colorado Partnership on toxic stress and promising interventions.