At the conference “Has COVID-19 increased toxic stress in children and young people and what can we expect in the future?”

Under the patronage of the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy, the City of Zadar and Zadar County, the Croatia for Children Foundation held an online professional-educational conference “Has COVID-19 increased toxic stress in children and youth and what can we expect in the future?”, which was attended on behalf of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center by the Deputy Director Vanja Slijepčević Saftić, PhD-MD, subspecialist in child neurology and psychologist Ella Selak Bagarić.

The panel discussion, along with principals and psychologists and special educators of schools, kindergartens and educational staff, health professionals, representatives of social welfare centers, associations, the City of Zadar and Zadar-Knin County, was attended by Deputy Mayor of Zadar County Šime Mršić and Assistant Head of the Department for social care and health Jakov Vidović, and in addition to our experts also spoke psychologist Jagoda Gauta from Šime Budinić Elementary School, Liljana Gašperov-Dujmović , head of the Department for Juvenile Delinquency of the Zadar Police and Renata Gubić, director of the Foundation “Croatia for Children”.

The world is currently focusing on the corona pandemic virus and the economic consequences that each country will suffer, but few point out the fact that in this whole situation, the biggest victims are often children, the conference said. Although this situation with coronavirus, especially social distance, is not easy for anyone, we do not all react in the same way, especially those children who were anxious or more difficult to adapt to changes before this crisis situation, or children who have already been exposed to toxic stress or are subject to it.

Toxic stress is said to include stress related to domestic violence, witnessing physical violence, exposure to corporal punishment, neglect, sexual abuse, peer violence, living with a parent with severe and uncontrolled mental health problems, parental dependence on alcohol or drugs. extreme poverty, loss of a family member, separation from the family, going through a high-conflict divorce of the parents and the stay of the parents in prison and the like. It is, therefore, stress that occurs when a child is exposed to strong, frequent and long-lasting hardships without adequate adult help and such stress permanently changes the child and the person he will grow up in, and the presence of coronavirus further exacerbated it.


What exactly is it about, the participants were explained by Vanja Slijepčević Saftić, PhD-MD, specialist in pediatric neurology:

“Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a significant increase in the risk of developing toxic stress. Continuous activation of the body’s stress response to chronic traumatic experiences, lacking supportive, stable relationships with adults, especially during sensitive periods of early age, has a toxic effect on brain cytoarchitectonics and other organ systems. Neural connections become depleted and disappear during toxic stress, and the fewer connections there are, the more significant the difficulties in developing the capacity for daily activities”. She also pointed out that children exposed to toxic stress in adults are twice as likely to have a heart attack, three times more likely to have lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), six times more likely to be depressed and 12 times more likely to commit suicide. They are also more prone to asthma, diabetes and eating disorders, and their mental health is severely impaired.

Psychologist from the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center Ella Selak Bagarić spoke about strengthening resilience in children and made recommendations for experts and parents. She presented the initiative and work of the Commission for the Protection of Mental Health of Children and Youth of the City of Zagreb and the activities to which the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center has contributed to strengthening the capacity of experts in the past period of corona crisis.

Psychologist Jagoda Gauta from the Šime Budinić Elementary School emphasized that distance learning, which was present at the time of the coronavirus, could not fully realize all the planned educational outcomes envisaged by the curriculum. The subjective experience of such teaching is, according to students, parents and teachers, and according to the research of the professional team, inferior to the experience they have during the implementation of teaching in the classroom (less satisfaction, less sense of competence in teaching areas, lack of social interactions, etc.) .

All present agreed that it is essential to understand what toxic stress is and to predict where it occurs in order to prevent its occurrence and minimize the consequences, through intensive interventions by experts. Now, in this situation where the fear of coronavirus infection prevails, self-isolation and social distance, existential, health and many other worries have become a part of our but especially children’s lives. The devastating consequences that the current situation will leave on children could be extremely dangerous. The consequences can be remedied if children who have already experienced toxic stress are treated in a proper and timely manner, provided with a stable and supportive environment and provided with assistance. Early recognition and involvement by experts can in some way compensate for the damage and have a positive effect on the further development of the child’s brain, especially in times of pandemic COVID-19. Therefore, this is not only health but also an economic problem if the intervention is not timely and comprehensive.

Toxic stress, as noted by Daniel R. Weinberger, director of the American Lieber Institute for Brain Development, turns children’s cells from Dr. Jekyll to mr. Hydea, and permanently. Experts, he warns, must prevent this, and this is exactly the idea of launching a new project of the “Croatia for Children” Foundation:

The goal of this project of the “Croatia for Children” Foundation, which will consist of several panel discussions, one of which we have already successfully conducted in Osijek, and which we will hold during the year, in addition to Zadar, in Rijeka and Zagreb, is to make children’s world better and better quality, and parents, peers, educational and professional staff and the community more educated and safer, by speaking on a specific topic that is very present, but insufficiently public, often insufficiently addressed so far. Also, with this project, we want to additionally present the Foundation “Croatia for Children” as a strong institution with a recognizable identity and character aware of the community in which it operates, which with its empathy, expertise and innovation actively contributes to better growth of children in Croatia and is open to all those whom its activities can help”, added Renata Gubić, director of the “Croatia for Children” Foundation.

By raising awareness and talking about the presence of toxic stress and its forms and consequences, experts and representatives of the Croatia for Children Foundation wish to warn the public of the presence of this increasingly present factor, its causes and consequences, which can be prevented by early detection and thus truly contribute to quality of life. children and their mental and physical health.


Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   

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