Toxic Stress & Early Childhood: In Conversation with NETworX’s Crystal Imes

The Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) will host our third annual Rural Faith Communities as Anchor Institutions (RFCAI) Conference in a few short weeks at the Duke Endowment (TDE) in Charlotte. Our partnership with TDE and Duke Divinity School allows us to convene rural faith leaders and statewide partners to explore the role of faith communities as anchor institutions in their rural areas.

This year we’ll take a deep dive into #kidoNomiCs, the economics of early childhood investment (a continuation of our 2017 Emerging Issues Focus Forum). Many faith leaders are already involved in early childhood spaces, but there are terms and definitions that don’t often come up within congregational settings. “Toxic Stress” is one of those phrases. We’re grateful that Crystal Imes (above), who serves as the NETworX Yadkin Coordinator, is joining us to answer important questions about Toxic Stress. Crystal will be co-leading a breakout workshop for faith leaders at this year’s RFCAI conference.

IEI: What is Toxic Stress?

CI: Toxic Stress is stress resulting from trauma. This trauma can be abuse, neglect, or the hardships of a life in poverty. This stress is particularly dangerous because it happens without the buffer of a supportive relationship and can have serious consequences.

Why do you care about Toxic Stress?

I have worked with kids in the NETworX program and in others that some people may see as poorly behaved or having a behavioral condition. While these assumptions may be true on the surface, if we look at that child’s life overall, in many cases we see Toxic Stress. I myself am coping with the adult issues that are a result of the Toxic Stress of my childhood, so I see myself in many of the children I work with.

My goal is to build relationships with children that prevent them turning to alcohol and substance abuse or help them to feel safe enough to talk with me rather than commit an act of self-harm.

What about Toxic Stress is the most shocking?

The most alarming thing about Toxic Stress is that it has lifelong consequences. Toxic Stress changes the brain architecture of a child which can result in learning difficulties, depression, behavioral conditions, and other mental health issues.

As adults, these children face other physical repercussions such as heart disease and diabetes and are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

What can faith communities do to learn more?

Reading information about what Toxic Stress is and how to become an advocate in the life of a child is a wonderful first step.

  • Partner with a local school, other faith communities, or your local library to screen the documentary Paper Tigers.
  • Explore resources from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child.
  • Finding children who are living with Toxic Stress daily and building relationships with those children is really the best way to learn about it. Once you gain their trust, they will share what issues in their lives are causing them stress, and while it isn’t realistic to believe you can remove all of the stressors in a child’s life, you can be a safe and supportive adult they can turn to when they need to talk or ask questions.

What gives you hope?

The resilience of children through difficult circumstances gives me hope. Adults who genuinely want to learn about and be a part of the lives of the children around them give me hope that one day every child will have someone trustworthy to rely on when life seems unbearable.

Looking for more? IEI’s Thriving Rural Communities resource page is chocked full of ideas for local faith communities to connect with partners and neighbors.

Kylie Foley
Rural Faith Communities Fellow