The American Academy of Pediatrics cites toxic stress as one of the greatest threats to children’s health today, and what threatens a child’s health, also threatens the health and well-being of the family. Toxic Stress is defined as frequent or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, such as physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, violence, and the like in the absence of protective factors. As a result of this kind of prolonged activity, cognitive impairment and stress-related disease is imminent well into adulthood. In an effort to reduce toxic stress in families, Be Strong Families recently partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics through their National Head Start Center on Health to train physicians and early childhood providers on several of our parent engagement curriculum. Be Strong Families also launched a Toxic Stress website with strategies, tips and information on ways to combat toxic stress utilizing input from our local parent leaders.
Recently, I sat down with one of our parent leaders, Vanessa Banks, to talk with her about the personal impact of toxic stress on her life and that of her family. Vanessa Banks found her life spiraling out of control; both she and her husband were involved in risky behaviors and due to their poor choices. Vanessa’s husband landed in jail and their four children ended up in the child-welfare system. Determined to change the trajectory of her life and that of her family, Vanessa began the grueling work of putting her life back together. She let go of toxic people and behaviors and went to therapy where she confronted her demons. Now, Vanessa is in school full-time pursuing an associate’s degree and working towards a return home goal for her children.
DC: Vanessa, we know toxic stress to be an experience of frequent or prolonged adversity such as exposure to violence, emotional and/or physical abuse or mental illness, to name a few, and that these stressors are not met with any kind of support to the afflicted. When you think about that term, toxic stress and its definition, what word resonates most with you?
VB: Most definitely severe neglect and abuse. That was my situation. I made poor choices and as a result, I began to neglect myself and my children; I wasn’t taking care of anyone, self-included. I stopped eating and sleeping and basically detached from life. Everyone around me was affected.
DC: What strength-based word or words are you able to draw from your experience of toxic stress?
VB: Greatness! I had some dark days, but I had to look myself in the mirror and acknowledge the greatness in me and that allowed me to keep fighting for myself and my children.
DC: What were some strategies that you personally used to combat toxic stress?
VB: I have quite a few tools in my toxic stress toolbox! I found that walking helped me a great deal to clear my mind. Some nights I just went outside and star-gazed into the sky. I find comfort in spending time with my cat- her purrs are soothing to my soul, as is painting. But what has helped me most was talking to God and writing in my diary.
DC: I like to think that every one of us has a person- someone we can turn to for support in our time of need? Did you have a person to turn to when you were in the clutches of toxic stress?
VB: I have a lot of family, on both sides, but the only person that was there for me in my valley was my sister. Veronica. She currently has temporary custody of my children- she has no children of her own. Growing up, my mother spent most of her life in jail, so my sister, Veronica, helped to raise me; she was like my second mom. My sister and I are very close, she is my best friend and my rock!
DC: Final question, Vanessa. There is an anonymous quote that says, “There are really only two great teachers in life, wisdom and consequence.” If you had the opportunity to speak life to your younger self, what would you tell her?
VB: For a long time, I didn’t realize I was under toxic stress; I just felt angry all of the time. Coming into the DCFS system allowed me to take a long look at myself and re-evaluate my life. It was a reality check for me… I think I would tell my younger self to appreciate who you are and not to worry about what other people think of you. I would tell my younger self to put me first; take care of yourself so that you are able to then take care of your family.