Bruce McEwen, Ph.D.'s  picture
Bruce McEwen, Ph.D.
Alfred E. Mirsky Professor
The Rockefeller University

How Young Brains Can Combat Stress

Negative experiences as well as everyday stressors can impair development, but parents and teachers can mitigate the effects

We can easily imagine that children who are exposed to extreme stress—poverty, violence, the illness of a parent or caregiver—may show signs of stress that have a lasting effect on a child’s development. What is harder, perhaps, to understand is that everyday life can take a lasting toll. Even though exposure to a bit of stress is actually normal and helps children develop coping messages, living through times of recession, social struggles like chronic bullying—these, too, can add an extra load to the developing brain.

But even where major stressors exist, the good news is, the brain is remarkably flexible, particularly in childhood, and there are ways we can help. Healthy brain development gives a person the tools for coping.

We are well aware that stress is an everyday occurrence in the lives of adults and children, but our responses to stress can differ. Not all stress is bad. In response to:

  • “Good” stress, we rise to a challenge and can be successful;
  • “Tolerable” stress, bad things may happen but we can cope and recover;
  • “Toxic” stress, our response is negative or unhealthy, often resulting in lasting damage.

Problems with HomeworkChildren and adults may experience “good” or “tolerable” stress if they possess good self-esteem and self-regulatory behaviors with support from family, friends and other caregivers. Both good and tolerable stress first requires the development of good self-esteem and self-regulatory behaviors as well as support by family, friends and other caregivers. Toxic stress can leave lasting effects. It may be triggered by environment, catastrophe or lack of family or social support, and when it occurs in critical periods of brain development in childhood, in particular, it can result in “faulty wiring”—unhealthy brain architecture that lessens one’s ability to cope or bounce back.

Along with major life events like loss of a parent or divorce, as well as abuse and neglect, the ordinary day-to-day stressors in family, work and school also affect brain and body function and can promote health-damaging behaviors. Moreover, it seems the news is filled with negative events that impact our lives and our families: jobs lost; homes at risk of foreclosure; poor and inadequate schools; unrest and war; a political system that seems not to function. Together, these stressors and chronic reminders of threat and aggravation activate evolutionarily ancient systems in our brains that are wired to react to danger. As such, they often lead to a state of anxiety and vigilance, impairing sleep and increasing health-damaging behaviors like smoking, drinking and overeating. This wear and tear affects the heart, accelerates obesity, increases anxiety, promotes substance abuse in some and impairs brain regions involved in memory and self-regulatory behaviors.

How Stress Affects Children

The brain is the body’s command central for stress and adaptation; it perceives dangers, seeks reward, avoids negative events, and determines physical and emotional responses. At the same time, the brain also regulates the hormones that are integral to stress adaptation that can, in turn, affect the “wiring” in the brain and influence behavior.

Since children are masters at tuning into the emotional state of those who nurture them, the effects of stressors upon parents and other adults is often transmitted to children, directly or indirectly, and it shouldn’t surprise us that stress in childhood can have lasting impact. Indeed, early life experiences—inconsistent attachment, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, lack of stimulation, crowding and noise—have long-term consequences for children’s mental and physical health. Now, ongoing brain research is showing us just how those early experiences can affect the developing brain and lead to a host of physical and mental health problems throughout life. The good news, however, is that the growing brain is flexible enough to reverse some of these effects when the proper steps are taken.

A child’s developing brain goes through sensitive growing periods when it is particularly susceptible to experiences; during these periods stressors and nurturing experiences can both have lasting effects on brain and body health. The examples of abuse and neglect—extreme scenarios—are perhaps most obviously detrimental. Not so obviously, such factors as inconsistent parenting involving emotional instability that undermines trust and a child’s sense of security can also be detrimental to long-term healthy development. Chaos in the home resulting from noise, crowding and emotional ups and downs will also have an impact on children as they grow. Neglect, a factor that may include lack of verbal and cognitive stimulation, can impair language development.

Overcoming the Effects of Stress

New evidence is showing that good maternal care can reverse some of these effects. There is some evidence, primarily in animal models but with some initial clues in humans, that good versus poor maternal care can result in long-lasting changes in the way our genes are expressed or activated, and sometimes these effects can be seen from generation to generation. Another exciting area of new research demonstrates how genetic differences can influence the outcomes of good or bad maternal care. Certain characteristics of common genes increase poor outcomes in response to abuse and neglect in childhood. However, these same characteristics may also give rise to better outcomes in a nurturing environment. Research using animals has also shown that consistency as well as quality of parental care is important for good cognitive and social development. The ability of the brain to be altered by the environment—called plasticity—in both the young and adult brain can be guided by these positive experiences.

In addition, we know that parents and teachers can also make an impact. Here are a few ways we’ve learned that stress’s effects can be moderated:

  • Be responsive and interactive with your child at all ages. This has been called “serve and return” as in tennis.
  • Verbal stimulation and positive emotional interactions help the brain develop. Read to your child; tell stories; play cards or board games together.
  • Reinforce effort as opposed to accomplishment. It is important for children to hear praise and positive reinforcements for their efforts.
  • Yet, set limits to behavior and misbehavior—use time outs and avoid physical punishment, but be consistent. Together with positive interactions, this builds a sense of trust and security.
  • Eat at least one meal a day as a family

With considerable time and effort, such actions and interventions can help those who have already suffered negative childhood experiences, but these scenarios further underscore the need for prevention.

Learn Now:

“Why Stress Over Childhood Stress?” an interview with Clancy Blair

“Why Stress Inhibits Learning,” by William Stixrud

Related Reading:

“The Science of Success,” article in The Atlantic about how genetic differences can influence the outcomes of good or bad care

“The Magic of the Family Meal,Time

Center for Disease Control Adverse Childhood Experiences Study