Toxic stress environments damage our children


jegna_brandon_jonesAs I reflect on the first quarter of the year and the current state of our community, I am left encouraged and flustered. I feel like there has been a significant amount of focus on moving Black people forward. However, these efforts have only made minimal progress.

As a psychotherapist, I spend a majority of my time working with Black youth. I have been able to identify a common link amongst most of the clients I serve, which is trauma that is a factor of toxic stress environments. I believe that understanding how to implement strategies to reduce the amount of toxic stress in our community is one of the major keys to improving our current condition.

What is toxic stress?

Stress is a part of our lives whether we like it or not — everyone has stress. However, toxic stress is a strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems.

Some examples of potential triggers for toxic stress are emotional abuse, having significant amounts of debt, exposure to violence, aggressive police presence, exposure to substance abuse, exposure chronic mental illness, being a victim of racism, and being in a natural disaster (like the tornado that touched down in North Minneapolis a few years ago).

Many of the youth I work with experience the toxic stress of living in chaotic and unpredictable conditions with unreliable emotional support, family conflict and instability, and fear of or harm from abandonment.

The mechanisms of toxic stress environments

Our environments (community, homes, schools, places of worship, etc.) play a role in our development. Children’s brains and bodies are constantly gathering information about their environment. They are learning the following:

• If their immediate world is dangerous or secure.

• If the people in their lives are constructive or destructive.

• If the relationships are trustworthy or implausible.

• Whether they can rely on adults to meet their needs and protect them.

They are also processing if they should stand alone and focus solely on self-preservation. Therefore, exposure to high levels of stress in a environment often leads to developing physiologic stress response systems that prepare their brains and bodies to respond to chronic threats that may be present or not.

Sadly, for many, these experiences lead to adaptive behaviors and habits. Consequently, over time, this becomes culture. This is a very dangerous notion.

This is how dysfunctional patterns become institutionalized into a system (culture). Then add a media component that makes these traumatic responses enticing, and these behaviors become more easily accepted and replicated. This is one of the ways we have generations of people who are struggling to survive.

What to do about them?

We need to remember that adverse environments trigger beliefs, which trigger habits (actions), which trigger consequences. We can combat this cycle by building support system networks that are authentic and accountable. We cannot solve any of our problems without building systems (institutions) that are producing.

It is not enough to come together to discuss our issues. We must take a systematic and strategic approach to our issues.

Another step is developing your economic stability to provide resources. This is an element of being a role model. Youth respond to and respect people who have something to show them. Whether what is being shown to them is positive or negative, they will follow.

Lastly, take action now. If there is a problem that you believe you have the capabilities to work on, get to work. As African Americans, our condition is complex. However, you must get started in the areas you believe you can have the most impact on.

To rid ourselves of toxic environments for our youth, we must create a developmental culture rather than a reactionary culture. Our children deserve it.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter @UniversalJones.