May 13, 2022

Joyful Play Can Counteract Toxic Stress in Children

By Brittany Pope, M.S., Director of Applied Clinical Sciences and Research, OhioGuidestone

Through a century and a half of working with marginalized children and families, the professionals at OhioGuidestone have come to understand that life experiences can present challenges that affect their wellness journeys and paths to success just as much as any intervention we could devise. To join them in overcoming challenges, we have to address trauma and toxic stress when it presents in their life.

That’s the idea behind “Joyful Together,” an evidence-based approach to helping parents and caregivers build stronger bonds with their children in order to bolster their resilience in the face of life’s stresses and challenges.

The foe at hand is toxic stress — a reaction children exhibit as a response to prolonged adverse experiences without adequate adult support. If toxic stress persists uninterrupted, it can impair brain development and functioning. A 2016 survey showed that half of Ohio children had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) — such as separation from a parent, violence or poverty — and one in seven had experienced three or more, putting them at increased risk of long-term damage from toxic stress.

We believe toxic stress is a significant enough threat to children’s wellbeing that screenings for adverse childhood experiences should be a part of regular medical visits for children.

The best protection for children against toxic stress is resiliency, defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as “a child’s perception of safety and protection based on their social-emotional ability to buffer him/herself from the effects of immediate or long-term stressors.” The inability to protect one’s self from those stressors, AAP says, “brings on feelings of fright and/or helplessness.”

Children who are resilient are better able to plan, to monitor and regulate their own behavior and to adapt to changing circumstances. But what does it take for a child to become resilient? The answer lies in removing modifiable challenges and supporting healthy socioemotional development, and one of the surest ways to foster that is through something that should be a part of every child’s life: joyful play.

Play teaches children empathy; it provides the opportunity to safely explore the impact of one’s behavior — to understand the rewards and consequences of different behaviors, and thus to set appropriate behavioral limits. These abilities are crucial to developing key executive functioning skills such as impulse control and perseverance — skills everyone needs to process stressors in a healthy way.

Unfortunately, many children don’t experience joyful play with the adults who care for them. That may be because the adults are busy or are themselves subject to toxic stress and have their own difficulties with executive function and emotional regulation. They may simply not be aware of how much their children need to play with them alongside of all the other needs they provide through caretaking. With Joyful Together, we believe we can prepare professionals to coach families on how to make joyful play a part of every day.

The program provides more than 100 simple starter activities, for all ages from birth to 10 years old. The activities are designed for times throughout the typical day — car time, meals, quiet times, transitions. They’re called “starters” because they are meant to be suggestions, to spark parents’ and caregivers’ own ideas on how to have joyful fun with their children.

Our research has shown that Joyful Together training benefits parents even as it helps children. Parents reported feeling less stressed, an assessment that was confirmed by lower salivary levels of cortisol. Parents had improved relationships with their children and more positive, empathic perceptions of their children’s behavior and increased cooperation.

The simple power of joyful moments between child and caregiver can not only prevent toxic stress but also can overcome harm that already has happened- resituating children on a path to healthy development. We believe that if it is implemented on a broad scale, it could significantly improve the wellbeing of children across Ohio.