Clancy Blair, Ph.D.
Clancy Blair, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Psychology
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University

How Researchers Study Kids’ Stress

Noted stress researcher Clancy Blair, in an interview with Learn, offers an overview on childhood stress and its impacts. Here is Part 2 of an excerpt from a longer interview. Listen to the complete podcast here.

LearnNow: How does the research help us understand the impact of stress on people and children, and what are the limitations of the research?

CB: Much of the research has been done on animal models and some on adults. We know far less about children. I think we rightly assume that some of the findings from animals and adults are going to function similarly in children. They are the same systems—the same hormones, the same biomarkers that we’re interested in. I think that work has been increasingly well established, and that we’re able to measure stress physiology in our kids. The questions would be, Are young children just inherently adaptable? Are they more able to compensate? Is one system sort of picking up for another one? If the HPA system is under duress, is the sympathetic system balancing it out? We just know so little about the stress response in young children that the next five to ten years are going to be crucial, I think, in terms of understanding the importance of this area of research and the extent to which it can really help us understand how aspects of children’s experience are being manifested in their behavior and the extent to which we can map out a physiological or biological root through which some of that’s happening—both for good and for ill.

LearnNow: Are there critical periods in child development where it seems that stressful events may have a greater impact?

CB: This is a difficult question, related of course to the answer to the previous question, in that we don’t know a lot. Seemingly with so much of development there is a primacy of early experience, and I would say with stress, it looks like the prenatal period is absolutely vital, from the animal models and a little bit of human work. But then so is the postnatal period, the toddler period, the preschool period. I would say the important way to think about this is to think developmentally—things that occur at one developmental time point may constrain certain developmental opportunities and preferentially drive alternative trajectories. Classic developmental thinking is really important when we talk about any sort of primacy or the idea that there’s a critical period. I don’t think that’s the case—I think we really need to think developmentally about the ways in which experiences at one time point may constrain opportunities at a second time point and foreclose certain eventualities and really enable a different set of outcomes, both, again, for good and for ill.

LearnNow: It seems that some people are more resilient than others. Do we understand what makes some people more able to bounce back or succeed despite a stressful early childhood or some catastrophic event? Can we help instill resiliency or is that something that you have to be born with?

CB: It’s definitely not something you have to be born with. Seemingly, from what we understand about resilience, people who have been through difficult times, who coped with stress well, had some opportunity to do that—someone who helped them, an important person in their lives, or other aspects, some of which may be constitutional or biological. This is the idea that not all stress is bad; it’s just that bad stress is bad and good stress is good. The ability to flexibly respond to challenge—to mount a vigorous stress response when needed and then down-regulate when needed—is really what we’re looking for, and the way that we think children acquire that ability is through scaffolded and appropriate opportunities to meet challenges and to work through difficulties in those ways. For some of these things, some people can do that, whereas others may have a much less amenable response—it sort of shuts them down. The way I always talk about this is the classic principle in psychology of the Yerkes-Dodson Law: At very high or very low levels of arousal we see difficulty on complex learning tasks in responding to challenge, but at moderate levels of arousal we do quite well. The idea is to keep ourselves at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, I think, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing. We might call that resilience. It certainly would fit resilience in the face of challenge, but everyone has his breaking point.

Learn More:

Read Part 1 and Part 3 of the Clancy Blair interview on childhood stress.

“The Good, the Bad and the Tolerable: How Different Stress Levels Impact the Developing Brain,” by Jack Shonkoff, M.D.

Related Reading:

“Building Resilience in Children,” by Bonny McClain, Healthy Children, American Academy of Pediatrics