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

Why Stress Over Childhood Stress?

Noted stress researcher Clancy Blair, in an interview with Learn, offers an overview on childhood stress and its impacts. Here is Part 1 of an excerpt from a longer interview. Listen to the complete podcast here.

LearnNow: What is stress? Please briefly give both biological and social definitions.

CB: Stress can be defined technically or colloquially. Stress is really any response—physiological, psychological or behavioral—to challenge or to movement away from homeostasis, and the effort to restore homeostasis in response to challenge. So that could be extreme hunger or psychological duress or anything like that.

LearnNow: How do experiences, especially in early childhood, shape a child’s response to stress?

CB: That’s a big question. The idea associated with movement away from homeostasis is that stress response systems are going to tune themselves to certain levels that will come to a new balance. That’s the concept of allostasis. Homeostatic systems like blood pressure and body temperature have to be maintained within a relatively narrow band to be biologically plausible—to maintain an accepted level of functioning. Stress response systems can adapt allostatically—biased homeostasis—so they’ll find a new resting level that’s appropriate for the stressful situation but that may come with long term costs to health and psychological well-being. Children’s experiences are shaping stress response systems in ways that are going to affect their later physical and mental health development.

LearnNow: Is environment a significant factor in stress—poverty, family violence, etc.?

CB: Seemingly it’s huge. We just don’t know. This is a critical area of our ignorance—a critical area in which we need more knowledge about the ways in which families or aspects of children’s experience at school, at home or at a playground may be affecting their stress physiology. We just received a Head Start University Partnership Grant to study this buffering toxic stress in young children and to see if characteristics of stressors that we measure in the home environment will be related to what we see in kids’ physiology.

LearnNow: Can a nurturing environment protect children from stress even if other environmental factors cannot be controlled?

CB: Seemingly so. That would be classic attachment theory. Basic warm and loving relationships should be the foundation for attaining an optimal level of homeostasis. So it’s not that no stress is the desirable state, but that kids are able to reflexively deal with stress knowing that they have a secure base—secure attachments—that they can return to. That should really help children deal with stressors and be effective in flexibly responding to stress.

Learn More:

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of the Clancy Blair interview on childhood stress.

“How Young Brains Can Combat Stress,” by Bruce McEwen

Related Reading:

“Starting Smart: How Early Experiences Affect Brain Development,” Zero to Three

“How Does Stress Impact a Child’s Brain? An Interview With Dr. William Stixrud,” a video on Transcendental Meditation blog