Toxic Stress is Crushing More Than Just Our Kids: Turning Outrage Into Compassion

In the right doses, stress builds healthy and productive skills that allow us to survive adversity and even thrive in challenging conditions. Yes, above and beyond the survival instincts of flight and fight, stress can activate our arousal system, allowing us to access our higher-order thinking capacities so that we can problem-solve efficiently and effectively, even turning adversity into opportunity for unmitigated success. So stress, we know, can be, should be- a force of good.

Listening to Jerome Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and regular speaker and author on the topic of anxiety and our children, helped me frame a bit why I’ve lately been feeling outraged at old topics that are very familiar to me, like the stress on our kids and what we as parents, educators, and as a society are doing — and not doing — about it.

I don’t think of myself as someone who experiences outrage, particularly when it comes to subjects that are old news, the ones I have come to take for granted. I overthink things, which means any indignation I feel quickly gives way to my tendency to push initial emotional reactions into my cognitive centers, resulting in a conveniently dispassionate stance on most topics. The generous might say I withhold judgment and that is often a good thing to do, particularly in my work. But recently there’s been a lot of cause for me to really experience my outrage.

The constant barrage of news highlighting treatment of the most vulnerable in our society these days most certainly outrages me. I am, after all, hard-wired both professionally and personally to advocate for children, adolescents and young adults who are unequipped to face the environmental demands that threaten their health and well being.

The truth of the matter is that children, adolescents, and, yes, adults, who have ADHD and/or processing or executive functioning deficits have two strikes against them. These cognitive profiles serve to accentuate their vulnerability, often converting daily stress to toxic levels as they face the educational, interpersonal, and professional demands of their lives. These vulnerabilities often manifest in acting out, withdrawing, self-medicating, strained relationships, and so on. For the epidemic rise of school refusers, we add the third “f” — freeze — to the instinctual reaction for self-preservation. And then there are those who are highly functional but struggle, even suffer, quietly under the weight the impact their ADHD has on an already healthy dose of daily stress.

Jerry Schultz reminded me that, despite all of the significant advances in identifying, intervening and treating ADHD and processing deficits, we continue to default to explanations and expectations that fault the character of the individual rather than find causes in his or her capacity. So now I’m admittedly sounding judgmental! But I include myself in this indictment. As the mother of two ADHD sons, now thankfully thriving young adults, I also have a history of expecting more of my children at times than they had yet been equipped to manage successfully; I too sometimes fell into the trap of assigning blame for their inability to meet some of their environmental demands to a lack of effort, caring, or will. I did not always, as I should have, appreciate their invisible emotional wounds, let alone their neurobiology, lurking beneath their surface behaviors. While I don’t have the space here to go into the neurobiology of the brain, I know that I certainly, albeit unwittingly and with the best of intentions, contributed to the allostatic load of toxic stress my sons experienced at times growing up. That outrages me. The good news of my own failures is that they have had an enormous impact on how I work with students and families facing these same challenges, turning outrage into action and, perhaps most importantly, into compassion.

At McMillan Education, we specialize in providing practical education and treatment-based solutions to address learning differences and emotional disregulation that make our students particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of stress. We creatively problem solve, identifying paths forward to alleviate young people’s distress, allowing them to begin to experience success and embrace their strengths, and giving them access to learning environments and treatment options that can, ultimately, immunize them from debilitating anxiety and compensate for their learning challenges. I like to call us “a place of hope and optimism,” because that’s who we are, what we believe, what we strive to do for students and families.

Practical solutions aside, outrage that remains outrage is just another toxic force in our lives and in the world in which our children are growing up. Compassion has the greatest impact on our children and, really, on all of us. At the risk of being accused of venturing into a political statement, I know that I am finding myself addressing my outrage over what’s happening in our larger society by being kinder to strangers in my every day life and trying to look under the surface lives of the people I know. We all carry invisible wounds, we all react to kindness and love in a way that promotes the best in us. Our children, adolescents, and young adults who carry the added layer of stress that ADHD and processing deficits can cause deserve an extra dose of compassion.

About The Author

Sarah McMillan, Ed.D.