Toxic stress: the effects of stress on child development
Everyone experiences stress, and learning how to cope with stresses is an important part of child brain development (Shonkoff et al, 2014).
Some stress can be ‘positive’, such as solving problems or preparing for an exam. With adult or peer support, these experiences can help children develop coping and concentration skills that will help in later life.
Other stresses can be ‘tolerable’. For example, children are usually able to cope with bereavement if they have the right ‘buffers’ or support from parents, carers, friends and family.
But exposure to prolonged or repeated adverse situations, such as child abuse and neglect, can cause ‘toxic stress’: an overactive stress response in children where they start to feel more stressed more often and for longer periods, which can disrupt the building of healthy brain architecture (Shonkoff et al, 2014).
This can affect children’s physical and cognitive development, including:
- a weakened immune system
- problems with memory and learning
- a reduced ability to control one’s moods or emotions
- slower information processing
(Crowley, 2017; Shonkoff et al, 2014).