Framing and Football: The Tolerable Stress of RGH III

(The following guest post is authored by FrameWorks President, Susan Nall Bales)

Tolerable stress gets no respect.  It conveniently drops out of the public discourse when more powerful cultural models come into play.

Recently, however, when Robert Griffin III was saving the Redskins’ reputation on the field, he also managed to teach us some valuable lessons about how toxic stress can be buffered and turned into tolerable stress through access to caring adults.

The dominant model of stress – “stress does a body good” – has been under scrutiny by scientists affiliated with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard for many years.  In order to differentiate among different types of stress, these scientists worked with FrameWorks to develop a typology of stress that is divided into three categories: positive, tolerable, and toxic.

Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.

Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

But tolerable stress is the least well understood.

Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.

Enter Robert Griffin III – just in time to save the day and demonstrate how tolerable stress works – as well as demonstrate how it gets twisted in translation.

In an in-depth look at RGIII’s childhood, Washington Post reporter Dave Sheinin  examined Griffin’s childhood and used a pull-out quote to summarize what he found:

“I think the experience in New Orleans helped prepare [him] for life.”

What comprised that experience?  It was a recipe for toxic stress: RGIII’s parents were both deployed by the military.  Young Robert went to live with a network of relatives in New Orleans where he was frequently shuttled from one uncle to another aunt – but where he had the advantage of a large, intact loving family.

But rather than focusing on the buffering that this family was able to provide to protect the developing child, the “story” is all about how stress does the body good:

“How much of [Robert’s] adaptability stems from those 14 months in New Orleans while his parents were overseas, when he and his sisters lived in four different houses, with four different sets of relatives, changing schools with each move?,” the writer asks.

The real question should go more like this:

“How much of Robert’s positive development stems from the fact that he had a strong network of experienced, caring adults to buffer the effects of disruptions in school, housing and home?”

Family dislocation, school turnover, disruptions in housing – these are the very things that break that “serve and return” process that builds healthy brain architecture: predictable, reliable, knowledgeable interactions with caring adults in one’s environment.

It was that network of aunts and uncles, a grandmother and a vibrant Black neighborhood that turned what could have been toxic stress for this admittedly shy boy into tolerable stress that allowed him to be “all there” when his parents returned and united the family in a new home.

And then there is the second lesson in this article.  RGIII’s experience with the buffering effects of family and friends  would not have been possible just a few years later.  Hurricane Katrina scattered the family like flotsam and jetsam – some relatives bedded down with Robert’s own family in Texas.  Most others moved away, as their houses and assets had been destroyed in the storm.  Picture RGIII without the material and human assets that buffered his dislocation – and you have the recipe for toxic stress.

Why is it important to call out these mistaken cultural models of stress?

Because they stick to us – they undermine our ability to see what keeps children on track for development. When our own heroes are seen as embodying the rule that stress does a body good, we are more likely to perpetuate the behaviors and attitudes that support the “pluck and luck” theory of human development – in both our private and civic lives.  Instead, when we understand RGIII’s real story, we should be doing all we can to make sure those networks of caring adults are there for all children, to catch them when they are left behind, and to put in place the buffers that will ensure we can participate in their later achievements.

So if you are singing a Hail to the Redskins any time soon for acquiring their new stellar quarterback, think what could have been lost to us if Robert’s environment had taken a wrong turn on stress.


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