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Families, Children and Stress

What toxic stress is. what it does, and why it matters to Nebraska's youngest children

Levels of stress graphic from Harvard Center on Developing ChildAs social and economic pressures facing families continue to mount, the incidence of stress as a chronic physiological condition is increasing. The effects of prolonged stress on adults are high enough—its relationship to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, suppressed immune function and other health issues is well documented. But in families with children, the effects of chronic stress are never limited to the adult parent alone. For very young children in particular, a persistent state of heightened parental stress can have devastating, lifelong effects that may well cascade over multiple generations.

Children are particularly susceptible to significant physiological and neurological damage from prolonged exposure to chronic stress in the family or immediate environment—even while they are still in the womb. Consistent, unrelieved stress experienced by expectant mothers has a toxic effect by exposing unborn children to unacceptably high levels of cortisol, a hormone released by the body in response to crisis or threat. Sustained exposure to heightened cortisol levels at a very early developmental stage can inhibit proper brain development and create neurohormonal abnormalities in children.

Exposure to toxic stress after birth is no less fraught with hazard for children’s healthy development. Researchers note that short-lived stress is part of everyday life, and exposure to it and learning to adjust is an essential part of healthy development in children. Key to that are safe, secure relationships with parents and caregivers that mitigate the physiological and psychological effects of stressful experiences and environments. But herein lies the problem—parents and caregivers who struggle with chronic stress (and related conditions such as maternal depression) are less likely to have the emotional and physical resources to comfort or reassure young children. As a result, children live with high levels of stress and low levels of parent and caregiver attachment, leading to lifelong problems in their physiological health and inhibiting development of essential cognitive attributes such as impulse control, emotional self-regulation, task focus and other behaviors—a cadre of skills referred to as executive function. The absence or delayed emergence of executive function skills raises the odds against children's ability to achieve in the classroom, work or interact constructively with peers, and ultimately navigate successfully as contributing members of their communities.

In our next blog post on stress, we’ll look a little more closely at the sources and effects of toxic stress in the family, and what some experts think can be done to mitigate it.

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