"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 1, 2013

Toxic Stress–One More Worry For Parents

Just when we parents thought we had it all figured out; after we had apportioned chores without causing dissension and revolt; solved the issue of allowances vs. cooperative participation; balanced trust with vigilance and spying; kept nursery air pure, meals healthy and organic, and friends familiar and reputable, along comes toxic stress:

For more than a decade, researchers have understood that frequent or continual stress on young children who lack adequate protection and support from adults, is strongly associated with increases in the risks of lifelong health and social problems, including: increased the risks of cancer, diabetes and heart, lung and liver disease for millions of people. Something that also increased one’s risks for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression — and simultaneously reduced the chances of succeeding in school, performing well on a job and maintaining stable relationships (David Bornstein, New York Times 11.1.13)

Now, I don’t know what it is like in California, but here in Washington, DC, it is the children who give parents toxic stress, not the other way around.  Parents are the ones who are driven crazy by the insolence, indifference, and in-your-face rebellion of their children  They are the ones who have to talk the cops out of hauling their children downtown, keep teachers from branding a big 36-point font ‘F’ on a senior report car; who page into space with no response, and who meet ragged, doped-up ravers with no place to stay after an all-night party in Baltimore.  Toxic stress?  Hey, parents are the ones who need understanding, support, and compassion, not their children.

My parents suffered no less, for I was as insolent, dismissive, and totally arrogant as my children’s generation.  In fact, the clearest, most vivid image I have of my father is one of apoplectic anger. At times he got so completely worked up that he could only sputter.  His face reddened, his neck puffed up like an adder, his veins popped out like ropes, he clenched his fists, and nothing came out.  There is no doubt that he wanted to clobber me just like his father had walloped him; but the white picket fences, Burberry raincoats, and the Sharon Hills Country Club of our neighborhood kept his guinea down, and I was spared.

Now it is 2013, and children can do no wrong.  They are more coddled, protected, nurtured, and adored than any period in history.  Parents invest time, money, energy, and emotion in these ingrates not because they expect an economic return, but because they need to justify their own untoward and illogical attentions.  If children can make it past childhood – past the flashers, child molesters, bad influences, bad food, and social media – parental effort, love, and solicitousness, they will get into Harvard.

Of course, all this helicoptering and intense child-focus does just the opposite.  Little Jonathan will explode like a volcano after years of frustration; and will give a final fuck-you farewell, and be out the door and down the road to community college, hourly wages, and a cheap, ditzy wife before you can say Jack Robinson.

Parents today make sure that their children have only the best care and support.  Their meals are healthy; and all slides, seesaws, and monkey bars are removed from the playground.  Little Jonathan is brought up to act like girl in class and to keep his mouth shut, his arms to himself, and his eyes front.  He is never allowed to play unsupervised or walk alone with his friends. He is programmed Sunday-to-Saturday with organized soccer, language class, painting-and-drawing, leadership training, and sensitivity classes. It is no wonder that he eventually will blow his stack.

Toxic stress, then, must refer to some other kind of American family – not the upper middle class strivers and achievers with whom I am familiar – the parents of a hundred Jonathans - but families with wife-beater husbands, drunken, abusive uncles, and slutty mothers.  The ones on welfare.  The ones who eat corn chips and Oreos for dinner, and slap their kids around. These parents will never make it out of the red dirt hills or the ghetto, and their children will cook meth, run H, shoot squirrels, and eventually get tossed in the clink. 

For all this national angst to have any real resonance, it must be a phenomenon more widespread than just a nasty social virus among the upper and lower classes.  It must affect the vast American middle. They may not suffer the overprotection and social illusions of Washington’s professional class; nor any of the down-and-dirty, pickup truck mentality of eastern Arkansas, but there must be plenty of family dysfunction.

What is an eager, middle class child of hard-working Iowan Christian parents to do when Daddy is caught with his pants down with Mabel, the girl from Accounting?  Or when Mommy has her drunks between 2-6 and forgets to cook or pick up the laundry?  Or when Sis gets pregnant by a high-school drop out, the oil change guy down at R&R Towing and Car Repair? The child gets toxic stress.  His grades go down, his attitude sucks, and he becomes as drug-dependent and sexually careless as his parents.

There was a famous documentary a number of years ago called An American Family where TV cameras followed the Loud family around for a year.  What the producers thought would be a Norman Rockwell example of America at its homespun best, turned out to be just the opposite.  The whole family was fucked up.  The libertine father, the neurotic mother, the gay queen son….everyone was twisted in some unique way. The point is not that the Louds were special or different; or that the producers lucked out with some TV-worthy, smarmy and seamy tidbits instead of pot roast and prayers.  It was that all families suffer from some kind of toxic stress. So what’s the big deal?

If you can believe the hype, toxic stress is worse than cancer:

“What the science is telling us now is how experience gets into the brain as it’s developing its basic architecture and how it gets into the cardiovascular system and the immune system,” explains Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, where the term toxic stress was coined.

Wow! Not only does the abuse a cracker father dishes out when he stumbles home drunk raise welts and bruises, it addles his kid’s brain.  Forget about Darwinism, and the millions of years required to effect evolutionary change through random selection.  If Billy Bob bangs the shit out of you, your neural synapses are changed.  He messes with your DNA not just your head. Throw Darwinism is out the window. Bring back Nikolai Chernyshevsky and the Russian anti-evolutionists!

It is critical to distinguish between “toxic stress” and normal stress. In the context of a reasonably safe environment where children have protective relationships with adults, Shonkoff explains, childhood stress is not a problem. In fact, it promotes healthy growth, coping skills and resilience. It becomes harmful when it is prolonged and when adults do not interact in ways that make children feel safe and emotionally connected.

However Billy Bob, even with all his beatings and drunken stumbling, does have a job, puts food on the table, and pays for books at school.  He is an asshole and a wife-beater, but he provides a ‘protective’ environment for his children. In fact, if anyone comes after his kids, he will blow them to smithereens.  And Phillip, successful Washington K Street attorney who is never home, bills at the office till all hours of the night, boffs his legal aide, and plays golf with politicians, can also be said to provide a stable, predictable, and comfortable home for his wife and children.

The fact is that no family is The Holy Family, and anyone who finds one without stress, toxic or otherwise, has been reading too many Stories for Catholic Boys and Girls. Does this mean that we should throw in the towel?  No, say the experts.

One thing that is highly protective is the quality of the relationship between the parent and the child,” explains Darcy Lowell, the founder of Child First, a program based in Shelton, Conn., that has marshaled strong evidence demonstrating the ability to intervene early, at relatively low cost, to reduce the harm caused by childhood stress in extremely high-need families. “Early relationships, where adults are responsive and attentive, are able to buffer the damaging effects on the brain and body,” she says.

However, it is simply difficult for me to envisage Billy Bob suddenly becoming the calm, attentive, patient, and loving father that Ms. Lowell envisages. Or Phillip the Attorney turning down billing lucre, office pussy, and drinks at the 19th hole for his kids. A leopard doesn’t change his spots my mother used to say; and there is as much chance of Billy Bob or Phillip changing theirs as there is of water running uphill.

A big goal is to help parents develop “reflective capacity” so they can respond with greater awareness about – and bring more wonder to – the meaning of their children’s behavior every day. Another is to help parents become more effective problem solvers – exercising their “executive functioning” capabilities, which can be impaired by traumatic childhood experiences.

Whoa! ‘Reflective capacity’? It is high time that the liberal, ‘progressive’ Left just let go of all this idealistic nonsense. Everybody is toxic.  

Perhaps this is too cynical; but once again, I can’t help but thinking what life must be like for children even in famous, respected families.  Like the John Edwards family.  Edwards abandoned his dying wife, always had a little on the side, got his girlfriend pregnant, and tried to pin the rap on a loyal aide. Or the Mark Sanford family who had to put up with the Governor’s crazed infatuation with an Argentine firecracker and his fantasy stories about hiking the Appalachian trail?  Or the Kennedy kids who witnessed their father, President Jack fuck like a rabbit and leave Jackie redecorating the White House while he was bedding starlets at the Hay-Adams.

There is mild stress, moderate stress, serious stress, and truly wild-and-wooly fucked up stress.  I don’t mind labeling this last, extreme category as toxic; although I don’t know which is worse for a kid – to see the treachery, dishonesty, and duplicitousness of a revered father; or to be whacked around every so often by a predictable dummy.

Biff, the son of Willy Loman in Miller’s Death of a Salesman is totally and abjectly ruined by the discovery of his father whom he has idolized in bed with a whore in a cheap hotel.  Willy tried his best to provide a ‘protective’ environment for his sons and wife, but was too beaten, disillusioned, and defeated by a world he did not understand to act upon his good intentions. Did he cause Biff’s toxic stress?

The stakes? “To my mind,” comments Robert Anda, “[dealing with toxic stress] is the most important opportunity for the prevention of health and social problems and disease and disability that has ever been seen.”


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