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Toxic Stress

Toxic stress is a relatively new term for an age old problem. Much is being studied, written, and taught about it. In the same vein, much is being made fun of about it, which is most unfortunate. What does this topic have to do with our futbol/soccer kids? Much actually, so please bear with me.

A very long term and excellent study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) is continuing to provide much information on how negative elements experienced in our childhood influence and are the basis of life long medical and psychological difficulties.

ACE’s include events such as child abuse, absence or loss of a parent through abandonment, divorce, or death, substance or alcohol abuse in the home, mental illness, violence in and out the home, family criminal behavior are all examples of environmental factors which can lead to difficulties.

These events can be a starting point to an adaptive response within the child such as hyperarousal also known as the fight or flight state, defiance, willful opposition, anxiety/panic. They can also create a dissociative disorder or a “tuning out” state to detach and avoidance from the events but not true coping.

This has a further domino effect on the developing brain and can interrupt all levels of its development from the most basic (Brainstem and Diencephalon) to the more complex (Limbic and Cortex) which in turn is the basis for life long difficulties ranging from mental illness, cardiovascular disease, stroke, hepatitis, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

Toxic stress can affect all kids from intrauterine through adolescence. The connection to our young athletes is multidimensional, but prevention of ACE’s is foremost and essential. Spending time with our kids is an over-simplified statement, but remember that “quality time” comes within the context of “quantity time.” it simply can’t be scheduled.

Be present and accompany our kids through life, those long hours on the sidelines does have a tremendous return on investment. Kids don’t always want to talk things out, but just being in their presence lets them see our love and caring for them. Learn how they prefer to communicate, my own sons and I found our greatest conversations on the basketball court or on the pitch just shooting shots. Help them to cope with stress in healthy ways such as exercise, quiet discussions, hobbies, and don’t be hesitant of professional help if needed.

And here’s the big one, model healthy behavior. To do this, we indeed have to take inventory of how we are as parents and role models. What of the ACE’s do we

Carlos Flores
RN FCN, Valley Children’s Hospital

display? For example, we’ve all seen the videos of sport parents and coaches behaving badly. These examples are not so unusual. I’ve seen them myself on many sidelines. Remember that our kids are watching and often internalizing the negative emotions that rage from these incidents.

So let’s all resolve to not be that parent. Let’s foster healthy development through attachment/teaching and modeling healthy relationships, self-regulation by teaching impulse control, affiliation by joining in on groups and teams, attunement by teaching empathy, tolerance by understanding and appreciating differences, and respect by finding value in one another.

This sport is a great venue to do all of these things…remember, play hard/play safe.

For more information on ACE’s and how to address them, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics / The Resilience Project website:

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