What Protects Our Children from the Effects of Stress?

Jul 28, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Lorraine McKelvey, PhD, is an associate professor of family and preventive medicine and pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections program (2008-2009) whose work focuses on vulnerable populations.


For children, stress can come from sources inside and outside the family. It was recently documented that nearly two out of every three children in the United States have witnessed or been victims of violence in their homes, schools, or communities. That’s a staggering statistic when we consider the well-established link between children’s exposure to stress and their long-term mental and physical health outcomes.

Indeed, we know that early exposure to adverse experiences can change the way that our brains develop and function. We also know that exposure to adversity increases the likelihood that children will develop psychosocial problems, like depression, aggression, and other antisocial behaviors. There is even evidence that exposure to stressors in childhood increases the likelihood of having heart disease and cancer in adulthood!

But what can happen to interrupt the pattern? What can help children overcome adversity? That’s something that we have been researching for a long time, but it’s often clearer to understand what puts someone at risk for less optimal outcomes than what supports them to overcome. The truth is that understanding what helps someone persevere is difficult to unpack. It depends on many things; the type and number of adversities the child experienced, the developmental period when the exposure happened, and the area of development that you’re trying to understand. An additional complexity is the same variations happen when you look at the protective factors that help support children to achieve optimal outcomes.

For young children, there is evidence that positive family interactions (and even a lack of negative family interactions like family conflict) can be protective against the negative effects of stress on development. For example, when you examine children who grow up in violent communities, studies show that having low levels of family conflict or high levels of family cohesion is protective for psychosocial well-being.  This seems to be true especially for boys, but studies are inconsistent with regard to gender.

Living in the context of violence is also stressful for parents. Empirically, we know that stress has negative impacts on parenting behaviors, including interactions with their children and others in the family. According to recent polling results published by NPR/RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health, The Burden of Stress in America, the most commonly affected area of life when people are under stress is family life.  About four out of every 10 people under great amounts of stress, according to the poll, also reported that stress made it harder to get along with family members and caused arguments. Given that family conflict is an adversity that negatively impacts children’s development, it’s imperative that we support parents to manage their own stress and support their children’s development.

There is evidence that two-generation child and family support programs can help parents achieve optimal parenting in the face of stress. One study of Early Head Start, for example, demonstrated that families in the program, compared to those who weren’t, were able to achieve cognitively stimulating parent-child interaction behaviors that minimized the effects of parenting stress on their children’s emotional development. Two-generation early childhood programs are provided in different ways, through quality early childhood education programs with family support components or in the context of visits made directly to families’ homes. The goals of the programs are to provide services for the child and instrumental and emotional support to parents so they can protect and nurture children to their best abilities.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.