Academic journal article The Future of Children

Stress and Child Development

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Stress and Child Development

Article excerpt


Children's early social experiences shape their developing neurological and biological systems for good or for ill, writes Ross Thompson, and the kinds of stressful experiences that are endemic to families living in poverty can alter children's neurobiology in ways that undermine their health, their social competence, and their ability to succeed in school and in life. For example, when children are born into a world where resources are scarce and violence is a constant possibility, neurobiological changes may make them wary and vigilant, and they are likely to have a hard time controlling their emotions, focusing on tasks, and forming healthy relationships. Unfortunately, these adaptive responses to chronic stress serve them poorly in situations, such as school and work, where they must concentrate and cooperate to do well.

But thanks to the plasticity of the developing brain and other biological systems, the neurobiological response to chronic stress can be buffered and even reversed, Thompson writes, especially when we intervene early in children's lives. In particular, warm and nurturing relationships between children and adults can serve as a powerful bulwark against the neurobiological changes that accompany stress, and interventions that help build such relationships have shown particular promise. These programs have targeted biological parents, of course, but also foster parents, teachers and other caregivers, and more distant relatives, such as grandparents. For this reason, Thompson suggests that the concept of two-generation programs may need to be expanded, and that we should consider a "multigenerational" approach to helping children living in poverty cope and thrive in the face of chronic stress.

Children depend on the care of adults in the environment of relationships in which they live. This provides a compelling justification for two-generation efforts to support healthy growth. In this issue, other scholars draw attention to the ways that family resources--such as assets (including income), parents' education and health, and family assistance programs--can have both direct and indirect benefits for children.

This contribution is different from the others in several ways. First, I focus not only on resources but also on how family stress, and especially sources of stress that are common to at-risk children, can threaten healthy development. The children in the studies I discuss live in poverty, witness domestic violence or persistent marital conflict, live in foster care, are abused or neglected, have a depressed mother, or experience other kinds of significant chronic stress. Second, I focus on developing biological systems, although the studies I review also have considerable implications for behavioral development, socioemotional adjustment, and cognitive growth. Third, I try to understand how parenting quality and parent-child relationships affect children's biological functioning in ways that can have enduring behavioral consequences. My argument is that children are biologically designed to rely on early social experiences to guide the organization of their developing biological systems in ways that can be healthy or maladaptive. Those social experiences, especially in the family, can assist or undermine positive coping and adjustment, or in some cases alleviate the effects of prior stressful experiences. This is where the research I discuss has implications for early, multigenerational interventions.

The next section outlines a general portrayal of a child's developing biology, drawing on research into fetal programming, the neurobiology of stress and development, and how immunological systems function. (1) The picture is incomplete because these research fields are rapidly advancing, but we know enough already to draw conclusions about how early experience affects the developing organization of these biological systems. In the third section, I expand on the concept of "stress," drawing on research into the interaction of genes and the environment, to provide a more refined analysis of the kinds of experiences and conditions that pose immediate and longer-term risks to young children. …

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