How to Manage Toxic Stress in Children

Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois, we see first hand the incredible change that can occur when a child who has undergone stressful experiences early in life is given the opportunity to have a consistent and strong adult confidant and friend.

Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, include circumstances such as living in under resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, experiencing food insecurity, abuse and neglect, substance abuse or mental health problems and instability due to parental separation or incarceration. These experiences can cause toxic stress for children which is the prolonged activation of the stress-response system. 

Roughly 32% of Madison County families are single parent households. Of the Madison County children in our program, 85% come from single parent households and roughly 80% live at or below the poverty level.

The childhood years, from the prenatal period to late adolescence, are the “building block” years that help set the stage for adult relationships, behaviors, health, and social outcomes. When our bodies are flooded with stress chemicals during this critical period, changes in the body and brain can occur that lead to negative outcomes both in the short term and long term. ACEs put youth at risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, substance misuse, intimate partner violence, and adult adoption of risky behaviors.

The Center for Disease Control recognizes evidence-based strategies for preventing negative outcomes in children caused by ACEs. These interventions include strengthening economic support for families, teaching healthy relationship skills to children, connecting youth to caring adults, providing quality childcare and early childhood education, enhancing parenting skills and other early interventions like therapy.

Mentorship plays a critical role in helping children with ACEs by connecting youth to a positive and caring adult who teaches healthy relationships skills, builds self confidence, enhances educational opportunities and aspirations and even acts as a support to the child’s parent.

As a community, we can help young people with ACEs grow and succeed at school and in life by ensuring these types of opportunities are available. 

I have always been a firm believer that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you think your child or a child in your life may be experiencing toxic stress or has ACEs, you can learn more about free mentorship in our community at

Heather Freed, LCSW
President & CEO

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