A "Fix" for the Impact of Toxic Stress on Young Children

Recently the New York Times carried an article in its “Fixes” column about the terrible effects of “toxic stress” on children – the toll that poverty, early trauma and lack of trusting adult relationships can take on children’s health and development. The article described a program in Connecticut, Child First, that works to strengthen parents’ relationships with their children and address families’ basic needs.  The article sums up the Child First approach as listening to parents and establishing trust, and not judging them: “If the first thing a mother says is, ‘I want beds for my children,’ then that’s step one.”

How often do we take for granted having material goods that make our lives comfortable and stress-free? Things like a dining room table and chairs so our family can share a meal and conversation, a good pair of boots to keep our feet dry on the way to work or school – or beds for our children to rest their heads and sleep the sound sleep that children need so they can be healthy?

Great early childhood programs like SouthSide’s, that serve families living in extreme poverty, know that to truly support struggling families, we need to work closely with parents, first developing trust, and together building strong relationships between young children and all the adults in their lives, at school and at home. And we have a critical role in supporting the family at home in any way we can.

Our work with three year old Carlos and his family is typical. After getting to know him and his mom, and gaining Mom’s trust over the course of a year, she shared with our family support staff that the children slept on the wood floor of their apartment – they had no beds. Sometimes Carlos snuggled next to mom on a twin size mattress.

We are so fortunate to have a legion of supporters for our families and more than a hundred years of experience – thanks to the model started by our intrepid Unitarian founders – working with families through parent engagement, counseling, home visits and providing family support. Our staff put out a call to the generous Kappa Delta Sorority, which has supported SouthSide’s mission for half a century. Within days, we had six beds delivered to this family’s home, including a queen size bed for Mom.  She was visibly relieved, very emotional and grateful. Step one – complete. This one seemingly small gesture takes a substantial amount of stress off the shoulders of five children and their hard-working mother.

Mom reported the next day that at bedtime, Carlos crawled into his new bed, and for the first time in months, they both had a deep and restful sleep.