Reframing newsletter

Communicating with Communities Affected by Toxic Stress

July 23, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, communities across the country are experiencing the traumatic effects of the resulting job losses, financial and housing insecurity, missed educational opportunities, social isolation, and grief. At the same time, recent manifestations of institutional and systemic racism, including police violence towards Black people and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, have placed a spotlight on the deep physical and psychological toll of racial discrimination in this country. As human service and racial justice leaders advocate to rebuild a more just and fair society that works better for all of us, we will need to effectively convey the realities of trauma and its impacts so that people are open to engaging in trauma support services and advocacy efforts. A new report from the FrameWorks Institute on communicating about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) offers useful guidance that can be incorporated into this broader message.

As Reframing Network Newsletter readers know, FrameWorks has long studied early childhood development in order to translate for the public how toxic stress — defined by FrameWorks as “when a child experiences severe and ongoing stress…without adult support” — negatively affects children’s health and well-being. FrameWorks’ recently released Message Brief, Strategies for Effectively Communicating about Toxic Stress, “identifies a set of framing strategies that can more effectively communicate the science with [affected] audiences in ways that acknowledge their dignity, their capacity for resilience, and ultimately allow them to serve as agents of change, both for themselves and their communities.” This report was produced in collaboration with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

FrameWorks lays out the below five strategic framing recommendations for professionals to use when communicating with “members of communities dealing disproportionately with economic and socio-cultural disadvantage.”

  • Be sure to capture people’s ability to be resilient to avoid the fatalistic view that the effects of toxic stress cannot be ameliorated by supportive interventions.
  • Use the recommended “overloaded” metaphor to focus attention on the external stressors that affect parents’ responsive caregiving.
  • Utilize the value of interdependence to avoid cuing individualism, or the notion that personal choices and behaviors determine life outcomes, but rather prompt the concept of self-efficacy that emphasizes that people’s actions can be effective.
  • Invoke the value of community strength to promote the idea that toxic stress is a “public concern” that can benefit from community-based solutions, to move from the predominant view that parents are the sole factor in how children develop.
  • Use the value of ingenuity to show that science is significant and relevant to dealing with social challenges, in order to reduce reliance on science exclusively.

Read FrameWorks’ other research on early childhood development.

SPOTLIGHT: Opinion Piece Highlights Reframing

Connecting the brain to the rest of the body,” a July 9, 2020 opinion article in The Hill by Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., director at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, provides a nicely framed perspective on early childhood development and its impact on health and education. It incorporates the Building Well-Being Narrative through language such as “young children’s opportunities to achieve their full potential” and “will build a strong foundation.” Additionally, it offers explanations, a reasonable tone and solutions. It is also notable for what it does not do — crisis framing which can lead to fatalism, or a misperception that challenges are too big, complex, entrenched and inevitable to address or solve.