Stress is a normal and essential part of a child’s life. However, the effects of stress on child development should not be underestimated. Find out why and their impacts on children.
Table of Contents
What Are The Different Types Of Stress
There are two main types of stress affecting humans1.
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.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has identified three types of psychological stress2:
Adverse experiences that are short-lived create positive stress, called eustress (vs distress). Positive stress is normal in daily lives. Young children may experience it when they meet a new relative, attend a new daycare, or have a toy taken away from them.
Children can learn coping skills to manage and overcome positive stress with the support of caring adults. The ability of a young child to cope with this kind of stress is crucial to their healthy development.
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 their 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. However, 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.
Adverse childhood experiences that last for weeks, months or even years create stress that is toxic.
Examples include child maltreatments, such as physical or emotional abuse, and chronic physical or emotional neglect.
Children can not effectively manage this type of stress on their own. When a child’s toxic stress response is activated for a prolonged period, it can lead to permanent changes in the developing brain.
A caring adult can protect a child from this chronic stress and bring back the body’s stress response system to its normal state.
Damaging Effects of Stress On A Child’s Development
Stress is a natural and inevitable part of life. People 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 a new and potentially dangerous situation throughout life.
Stressful events activate the body’s alert systems. The resulting fight-or-flight response generates physiologic changes 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 type of stress can help a child’s development, toxic stress can damage various parts of the brain architecture and circuits3. Its adverse effects on a developing brain include the followings:
Impaired Cognition, Learning And Memory
Toxic stress results in a large release of stress hormones, including cortisol. Sustained high levels of cortisol can cause the learning and memory center (hippocampus)4, and the executive function center of the brain (prefrontal cortex)5 to shrink.
As a result, such toxic stress can lead to cognitive deficits and poor impulse control that may persist into adulthood6.
Overactive Stress Response
Toxic stress also causes the emotional-alert center in the brain (amygdala), to grow and become overactive. Children who grow up with toxic stress are more anxious7 or aggressive8. They often suffer from emotional dysregulation as well9.
The stress hormone, cortisol, released by the stress response systems can suppress the immune system, leaving an individual more susceptible to infectious diseases and chronic medical conditions10.
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.
Scientists have also found that children who grow up with sustained toxic stress are more likely to have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, lower sense of well-being, more work-related problems and die prematurely by as much as 20 years earlier9.
Toxic stress can be very damaging to a child’s physical and mental health. Early exposure to toxic stress can have long-term consequences on the bodies and minds. It is imperative that parents help their children avoid such stress.
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 maltreatment2.
However, severe child maltreatment is not the only source of toxic stress. Dysfunctional families, caregiver substance abuse, family economic hardship, domestic violence, bullying, and food insecurity can also result in toxic stress11.
Childhood 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 response12.
Exposure to less severe yet chronic, ongoing daily stressors 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 problems11.
The Difference Between Toxic And Tolerable Stress
There is a crucial difference between mild and intermittent stressors of daily life and moderate, but chronic, stressors.
Failure, disappointment, and rejection are inevitable for children, and kids should not be shielded from them entirely. Mild, intermittent stressors trigger positive stress response that can enhance a child’s development.
In contrast, toxic stressors often include sustained family hostility and a lack of warmth among family members, or under-resourced schools and neighborhoods.
Final Thoughts On Effects Of Stress On Children
Yelling and arguing are common in some families. Most of them are not extreme or abusive in nature. However, excessive stress can be toxic to children because the impact of mental stress is not determined by objective standard, but by the person who experiences it.
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.
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 and emotional harm. They provide predictability and consistency in the child’s environment, and nurture children’s developing self-confidence and sense of self-worth13.
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