toxic stress: a toxic legacy

Jill Stark (

 Domestic abuse and neglect can have a devastating effect on  children, but early intervention programs are providing a ray of hope.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.Illustration: Matt Davidson.

His rage was never far from the surface. Dinner was served too early. Dinner was served too late. The house wasn’t clean enough. It didn’t take much to set  him off.

The children knew to disappear when he got ”that look”. They’d feared their  father’s violent mood swings since they were toddlers. But on this day,  something snapped in 11-year-old Jack*.

”His father was screaming, ‘Clean up this f—ing pigsty’, and he’d run off  to hide. I sent my daughter to her bedroom and my husband followed her and  physically pulled her out of bed. I tried to stop him and my son appeared from  nowhere and just stood in the doorway between us. He was yelling, ‘Leave her  alone and leave my mum alone’. He went from being a frightened little boy,  hiding, to being my protector. That’s when I knew we had to leave. We packed the  car and left that night.”

For 21 years, Renee* had been emotionally, verbally and sexually abused by  the man she met in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs as a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

 A 1.8-metre-tall truck driver who became hooked on speed, he towered  over  her petite frame, using degradation and control as his weapons.

”He’d call me a lying, stealing, maggot c— and tell me he was  going to  take the kids and I’d never see them again. It broke every  single part of  me.

”He was just constantly battering and beating me down. While my  daughter  would be in the bed with me sleeping, he would climb on top of  me knowing that  I wouldn’t have screamed because she was there. He’d  tell me that he would  break me before he’d let me go.”

Witnessing the abuse left an indelible mark on Jack*, who was 11, and Mia*,  eight, when they fled the family home with their mother 3½ years ago. Jack  retreated into silence, consumed by worry about being his family’s provider. His  sister began self-harming. She was prone to fits of uncontrollable rage.

Their reaction is increasingly common, according to child development experts  who warn of an emerging phenomenon of ”toxic stress” in young people who have  experienced prolonged trauma.

In a state of constant alert, the child’s ”fight or flight” stress response  goes into overdrive, causing physiological changes to the architecture of the  brain.

The results can be catastrophic. As cell growth is impaired and the formation  of healthy neural circuits is disrupted, the child struggles to regulate  emotions.

Changes in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and  emotional control – cause shrinkage, which in turn can trigger learning and  behavioural problems, difficulty with impulse control and a heightened sense of  rage and self-loathing.

* Names have been changed

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