In From Neurons to Neighborhoods, a book about early childhood development, scientists refer to three basic kinds of stress: toxic stress, tolerable stress, and positive stress. Exposure to toxic or tolerable stresses can be damaging to a child’s developing brain, but experiencing positive stress is an important part of learning how to handle all kinds of stress in the future.

Toxic stress is extreme stress. It is intense, occurs repeatedly, or lasts a long time. Repeated threats to survival or having daily life turned upside down for many months by a natural disaster would be examples of causes of toxic stress. Toxic stress can make a child have a lower tolerance for stress, which affects future well-being and learning.

Tolerable stress is experienced over shorter periods of time. A recovery period follows, and supportive relationships are likely part of the situation. Tolerable stress can still be strong enough to affect the developing brain though. Examples of causes of tolerable stress might include the illness or death of someone or something much loved, a divorce, a serious and frightening accident, or a natural disaster.

Positive stress is short-lived and moderate. It is an everyday sort of stress. Experiences that fall in the positive stress category include such events as saying good-bye to someone or something much loved when leaving for day care, being frustrated over not having the ability to do something, or going to the doctor for a wellness checkup and getting a shot in the arm.

When a child experiences positive stress with the support of a caring adult, he or she learns how to adapt to that stress and respond appropriately. You can decrease the length of time your child feels distressed when you attend to your child’s feelings and needs, especially when some part of the situation is under your control. Extra love and care from you at stressful times can be especially important and comforting to your child.

Be responsive to your child’s needs . . .