How Stress Can Prevent Healthy Child Development

Posted on June 12, 2018



When we think of our children, the last thing we want to do is impose any kind of stress on them. But let’s face it, children are emotional human beings and stress is something that almost every child and adult encounters on a daily basis. However, not all stress is bad – but it’s not all good either.

Learning to cope with stress is an important part of healthy development for children. When stress is on the rise, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. How our bodies respond to stress differs – depending on the environment – and are broken down into three categories: positive stress response, tolerable stress response, and toxic stress response:

  1. Positive stress response – A normal stress response and part of a healthy development. This response may occur when meeting a new caregiver or getting an immunization at the doctor’s office. A positive stress response briefly increases the heart rate and can cause mild elevations in stress hormone levels.
  1. Tolerable stress response – A serious but temporary stress response. If the stress is relieved quickly (i.e. comforted by a parent or nurturing adult), the stress response winds down and the body quickly returns to normal. If the stress is not relieved quickly, the brain and other organs may have damaging effects.
  1. Toxic stress response – Prolonged activation of stress – such as a child being neglected for a long period of time, physical or emotional abuse, or caregiver mental illness, can cause a toxic response. Toxic stress can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into adulthood. If toxic stress occurs repeatedly, it can affect a person’s physical and mental health for life.

According to research, the damaging effects of toxic stress response may be prevented or reversed if supportive and responsive relationships with caring adults are present as early in life as possible. Reducing exposure to extremely stressful conditions is the best way to prevent damage from toxic stress response. If at least one parent or caregiver is consistently engaged in a caring, supportive relationship with a young child, most stress responses will be positive or tolerable.


Source: Center on the Developing Child | Harvard University