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Insights on Childhood Stress: What Does It Mean for Children in Poverty?

Image of a woman at eye-level with a young girl outside. Vegetation is visible in the background.
The strength of the parent/child relationship reflects the wellness of the child.

The negative lifelong effects of adversity and toxic stress in early childhood are well documented. Existing research indicates that children from low-income families face more stressors than children living in advantaged circumstances. Key findings from research across various sectors indicate the need for multifaceted, collaborative research on childhood stress. Neuroscientists suggest that the negative biomedical consequences of childhood stress are detrimental. Public health research indicates that childhood hardship leads to negative health outcomes and ultimately can impact larger systems such as family units, neighborhoods, and communities. In addition, research suggests that social programs can significantly affect health outcomes and success later in life. Taken collectively, these studies indicate the need for more research to prevent childhood stress and reduce the risk of negative outcomes in adulthood. Current research on childhood stress across various sectors overlaps and demonstrates similar findings. Although these research fields are not traditionally linked, they convey strikingly similar discoveries and conclusions.

The Neuroscience of Childhood Stress

Children are exposed to various stressors throughout their development, ranging from typical events such as a vaccination to toxic situations such as a habitually unsafe living environment. The brain responds to these stressors by initiating a neurochemical and hormonal cascade that coordinates the stress response and, when the stressor is no longer present, rapidly returns biological systems back to baseline. Under typical circumstances, this stress response is an important part of normal development; it facilitates adaptation and protection in a process known as allostasis. After prolonged exposure to toxic stressors, however, the stress response system becomes hyperactive and maladaptive, promoting inflammation that can damage both brain and body. This cumulative systemic wear and tear, known as allostatic load, can be measured using biomarkers that circulate in the blood, such as inflammatory cytokines. Science is just beginning to uncover the numerous ways that damage caused by toxic stressors, such as those associated with poverty, food insecurity, and unstable housing, can disrupt the delicate process of brain development in children. Evidence suggests that toxic stress may change the structure and function of neural systems important for cognition, emotional regulation, and prosocial behavior, thereby altering the typical trajectory of the brain development, and leading to poor mental and physical health.

Public Health and Childhood Stress

Childhood poverty is associated with adverse effects on health, educational success, and economic well-being later in life. Hardships associated with persistent poverty leave low-income children more vulnerable to stressors. One of the most prevalent yet preventable types of stressors, material hardships, comes in three forms: food insecurity, unstable or crowded housing, and inability to afford home heating or cooling. In 2011, a study in Pediatrics highlighted the development of a cumulative index based on food, housing, and energy insecurity as a predictor of the health of young children. Among more than 7,000 participants, multivariate analyses showed a significant association between the cumulative hardship index and children’s adjusted odds of wellness. As determined by overall measures of wellness, children who experienced multiple poverty-related hardships had significantly worse health outcomes. Severe hardship had a significantly greater impact on health outcomes than moderate hardship, which in turn had a significantly greater impact than no hardship. Moving forward, researchers must consider how to alleviate these remediable stressors. Investments in home visiting, early education, and public benefit programs could potentially mitigate correctable material hardships.

More than four decades of sociological stress research suggests similar findings regarding the adverse effects of stress and hardship on health. Generational stress, like generational poverty, sustains and widens the health gap between advantaged and disadvantaged social groups. For example, research suggests that stressors proliferate across the life course. Stressful childhood events often generate stressful experiences during young adulthood, leading to more stressors during adulthood. Adults who report multiple traumatic events during childhood report increased recent and lifetime stress levels. Stressors also proliferate across generations. Parental stressors — in particular, the stress of persistent poverty, often manifest in children. Parents under stress give less warmth and support to their children, elevating their children’s distress and often leading to behavioral problems and poor educational performance. Systematically, stress proliferation processes are important because they sustain and accelerate social disadvantage across generations.

Current Research

A study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated whether a psychosocial intervention focused on improving parenting skills, strengthening family relationships, and building youth competencies could reduce inflammation (a biological indicator of stress) in African Americans of low socioeconomic status from rural Georgia. Researchers recruited 19-year-old youths who had participated in a study of the Strong African American Families (SAAF) Program 8 years before. The original SAAF study enrolled families with 11-year-old children into a randomized controlled trial to test how well a family-centered intervention could enhance regulated, communicative parenting and youth independence. The follow-up study enrolled 272 youths from the earlier SAAF study, 173 of whom had been in the original treatment group that received the psychosocial intervention and 99 of whom had been in the original control group. To assess inflammation, researchers took blood draws from both groups to measure levels of inflammatory cytokines, which provided a measure of allostatic load. The results indicated the treatment group had significantly lower levels of allostatic load than did the control group and that reduced inflammation was partially mediated by improved parenting in these families. Moreover, the youths living in the most disadvantaged circumstances experienced the greatest reduction in inflammation. These findings suggest that psychosocial interventions focused on enhanced family communication and nurturing parenting, such as SAAF, may help reduce stress.

Future Research

Because chronic stress causes lifelong harm to mental and physical health, policymakers should focus more attention on ways to reduce stress and foster resiliency in HUD-assisted families, particularly in children, whose developing brains and bodies are most susceptible to damage caused by toxic stress. More research in this area may result in effective interventions that could have profound effects on the health and well-being of HUD-assisted children and families.