How Toxic Stress Derails a Child’s Ability to Learn

Practica Blog - Toxic Stress

How Toxic Stress Derails a Child’s Ability to Learn

We all know that babies, toddlers and young children aren’t nearly as good at managing their feelings as they are at experiencing them.

There’s a physical explanation for this: the emotional centre of the brain is situated in the middle with the thinking regions much higher up, and a child’s brain is wired from the bottom up.

In other words, the emotional brain has a head start over the thinking brain.

This explains why babies register the entire spectrum of human emotions from early on, while it takes much longer for them to learn to think and reason.

When feelings are very intense, the extra wiring in the emotional brain draws most of the energy away from the higher brain.

The thinking brain is practically de-activated when a child is overwhelmed by emotion and the child is unable to think clearly, understand what somebody is saying to him and calm himself.

He needs the closeness of a caring adult to calm down.

Going through very emotional experiences is not a problem when a child gets upset from time to time for normal reasons, like when he isn’t allowed to eat cookies before dinner.

Problems set in when children are left alone to cope with anxiety for long periods of time on a regular basis, without the support of a loving adult to help calm them down.

When little brains are overwhelmed in this way for long periods of time they experience something that psychologists refer to as toxic stress.

Bear in mind that “brain cells that fire together, wire together”.

Practically speaking, toxic stress over-stimulates the emotional brain while it under-stimulates the thinking brain.  

This explains why children who experience toxic stress don’t get better at dealing with anxiety – they simply get better at registering anxiety.

In other words, they become generally fearful and overly sensitive to threat.

On the contrary, holding and comforting a child to help calm him provides something for that child that is called emotional buffering.

The compound effect of hundreds of buffering experiences is that a child’s thinking brain slowly but surely develops the wiring that it needs to make it possible for him to learn to calm himself.

This happens over time as the child gradually learns to recreate in his own body and mind what he has been experiencing in the arms of one or more loving caregivers: moving from inner chaos to inner calm.

At the same time, his thinking brain is freed up and activated to become better at thinking, planning and reasoning.

This explains why children who are protected against toxic stress find it easier to deal with stress when they’re older and why it’s easier for them to focus their attention and control impulsive behaviour.

Here’s a video on toxic stress that was produced by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.