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Effects of Stress on Child Development

3 Types of Psychological Stress | Effects | Causes of Toxic Stress | Toxic Stress vs Tolerable Stress

Types Of Stress

Stress is a normal and important part of healthy child development. However, the effects of stress on child development should not be underestimated. Find out why and their impacts on children.

There are two main types of stress affecting humans​1​ – physiological stress (physical) and psychological stress. Physiological stressors are physical forces that are strong enough to challenge an individual’s physical limits. Psychological stressors are psychosocial strains that result from a person’s subjective interpretation, based on expectations, beliefs, or assumptions stemming from their previous experiences.

Physiological stress results from changes in the outside world, whereas psychological stress is rooted in the brain. Previous experiences affect whether a psychological stress response is triggered.

When the stress response is activated, a child’s perception of control over the stressor, based on prior experiences, determines the stress’ intensity, duration, and long-term effects. That means, given the same stressor, each child perceives the stress differently because of their unique life experiences in the past.

girl covers ears dealing with effects of stress on child development

3 Types of psychological stress

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has identified three types of psychological stress that can affect a child’s development​2​:

Positive stress

Adverse experiences that are short-lived create positive stress, called eustress. Most everyday stress is positive stress. It is normal in daily lives. Young children may experience it when they meet a new relative, go to a new daycare, have a toy taken away from them, or attend first day of school.

Children can learn coping skills to manage and overcome positive stress with the support of caring adults. A child’s ability to cope with this kind of stress is crucial to their healthy development.

Tolerable stress

Tolerable stress refers to adverse experiences that are still relatively short-lived but are more intense.

Examples include the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a frightful accident, and significant disruptions such as moving to a new city or the separation of parents.

This type of stress can be tolerated if the child has the support of a caring adult. It is possible for tolerable stress to improve the child’s development if it becomes positive stress. But this can only happen with adequate adult support. If a child doesn’t receive enough support, even stress that should be tolerable can become toxic and cause long-term health problems discussed below.

Toxic stress

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) that last for weeks, months or even years create stress that is toxic.

Examples of chronic stress include child maltreatments, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

Children cannot effectively manage this type of stress on their own. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated for long periods of time, permanent changes can take place in the developing brain.

Toxic stress is bad news for children’s development.

But the good news is caring adults and supportive environments can protect a child from the negative effects of toxic stress. An environment of supportive relationships can bring children’s stress response system back to its normal state.

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Effects of Stress On Brain Development

Stress is a natural and inevitable part of a child’s life. Fetuses experience stress even before birth. 

Some amount of stress is essential for survival. It helps children develop the skills they will need to cope with new and potentially dangerous situations throughout life.

Stressful situations activate the body’s alert systems. The resulting fight-or-flight response generates physiologic effects such as an increase in respirations, heart rate, blood pressure, overall oxygen consumption and the release of stress hormone.

The stress response to positive and tolerable stressors is transient. Once the stressor is gone, the body returns to its baseline state.

While positive and tolerable stress can promote a child’s development, toxic stress can damage various parts of the brain architecture​3​. The adverse impact of stress on a developing brain include the followings.

Impaired Cognition, Learning And Memory

Toxic stress results in increased release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Sustained high cortisol levels can cause the learning and memory center (hippocampus)​4​, and the executive function center (prefrontal cortex)​5​ to shrink, impairing the child’s cognitive development. The resulting cognitive deficits and poor impulse control can continue into adulthood​6​.

Overactive Stress Response

Repetitive and prolonged activation of stress response systems causes the emotional center in the brain (limbic system) to grow and become overactive. As a result, children who grow up with toxic stress are more anxious​7​ or aggressive​8​. They often suffer from emotional dysregulation​9​.

Mental Disorders

Extensive empirical data shows that toxic stress can lead to mental illness later in life, including somatic disorder, hallucinations, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts.

Dysregulated Immunity

Toxic stress doesn’t only hurt the brain. It can harm physical health as well.

The stress hormone, cortisol, released in stressful situations can suppress the immune system, leaving an individual more susceptible to infectious diseases and chronic medical conditions​10​.

Well-being

Children who grow up with toxic stress are at a higher risk for chronic health conditions such as heart disease. They tend to have lower sense of well-being, more work-related problems and premature death by as much as 20 years earlier​9​.

Toxic stress is very damaging to a child’s physical and mental health. Early experience of toxic stress can have serious consequences on the child’s lifelong health.

What Causes Toxic Stress

Children’s maltreatment is a leading cause of toxic stress. Maltreatment can take many forms, including physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

Research shows that there are an estimated 8,755,000 child victims in this country. That means over 1 out of 7 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years have experienced maltreatment​2​.

However, severe child maltreatment is not the only source of toxic stress. Dysfunctional families, caregiver substance abuse, family economic hardship, domestic abuse, bullying, and food insecurity can also result in toxic stress​11​.

Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences severe, prolonged, or repetitive adversity and lacks the necessary nurturing or support of a caregiver to prevent an abnormal stress response​12​.

Exposure to less severe yet chronic, ongoing daily stress can also be toxic to children.

These daily stressors include exposure to a family filled with conflict and aggression, and relationships that are cold and unsupportive. 

When a child experiences toxic stress, their stress response system is activated and their body cannot fully recover by itself. Therefore, whether or not they are abusive, repeated hostility, unsupportive and negative interactions in the family trigger the stress response the same way. That’s why these stressors are toxic, and they lay the foundation for long-term physical and mental health problems​11​.

The Difference Between Toxic And Tolerable Stress

There is a crucial difference between mild and intermittent stressors of daily life and moderate, but chronic, toxic stress.

Failure, disappointment, and rejection are inevitable for children, and kids should not be shielded from them entirely. Mild, intermittent stressors enhance the development of healthy stress response systems.

However, toxic stressors often include sustained family hostility, a lack of warmth among family members, or under-resourced schools and neighborhoods.

Yelling and arguing are common in some families. Most of them are not abusive or extreme in nature. However, they can still be toxic because the negative impacts of stress are not determined by objective standard, but by the person who experiences them.

For little kids, even minor conflicts can be significant. They experience them differently from grownups. Children experience toxic stress when parent use “tough love” regularly.

The helicopter parents, on the other hand, shield their children from any adversity, thus preventing them from flexing their stress-tolerance muscles.

Final Thoughts On Adverse Effects Of Stress On Child Development

Scientists have found that having safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with caregivers can protect a child from toxic effects of stress. These relationships keep children safe from physical harm and emotional problems. They provide predictability and consistency in the child’s environments. Close parent-child relationships also nurture a child’s developing self-confidence and sense of self-worth​13​.


References

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    Odgers CL, Jaffee SR. Routine Versus Catastrophic Influences on the Developing Child. Annu Rev Public Health. Published online March 18, 2013:29-48. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114447
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