Severe Stress Leads To 'Toxic' Hormonal Changes In Poor, African-American Children Especially

May 29, 2019 - 11:19 am

DETROIT (WWJ) - Stress is common. But when it is sustained or severe, it causes negative health and educational impacts -- especially for poor and African-American children.

Tolerable stress can contribute to better performance in academics, behavior and health. But when frightening or threatening situations occur too frequently or are too intense, they lead to "toxic" hormonal changes that can impede a child's behavior, cognitive capacity, and emotional and physical health, according to a new study. 

"It can be abuse, having a close family member incarcerated, being a witness to domestic violence, being neglected, it can be experiencing homelessness, being put in foster care, being exposed to neighborhood violence and also discrimination," said Doctor Leila Morsy, one of the researchers. 

Morsy said toxic stress situations are more sustained and experienced more frequently by African-American and economically disadvantaged children. 

"They're more likely to have attention problems in the classroom, they're more likely to have aggression and break the rules, and they're more likely to have social problems," Morsy said.

Large social change is needed to address the issue, according to researchers. Supportive neighborhoods, parents and especially teachers can improve outcomes for children impacted by toxic stress.  

"If you could prepare all school staff to be trauma informed -- so, to know how to respond to children who might have been exposed to threatening experiences and might have a deregulated stress response -- that can have a positive impact on how children fare," she said. 

The study was conducted for the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.