July 2024

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Safe, Secure Relationships For Better Health

All kids feel stressed from time to time. They may worry about friends, homework, or a big test. Stress is normal. But some kids go through extremely stressful or traumatic situations. These can lead to physical and mental health conditions later in life. Scientists are studying the long-term consequences of early life difficulties. And they’re looking for ways to protect kids from the health effects.

“Normal stressors, or stressful experiences, that we all experience on a regular basis tend to be things that one can reasonably manage. Or, in the case of a child, with the help of a supportive caregiver,” says Dr. Nim Tottenham, a professor of psychology at Columbia University.

“Normal stress is essential in life for growth and learning,” explains Dr. Jing Yu, an NIH expert on child development. “Positively adapting to normal stress can promote a child’s performance and skill development.”

But stress can become toxic if it lasts for extended periods or results from traumatic experiences. For children, examples include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Or, it can be growing up in a family with a lot of conflict between people. Living with people who have severe mental health or substance use disorders can also be a cause. So can neighborhood violence, discrimination, and significant poverty. These circumstances can put kids at risk for mental health disorders. They can also lead to academic or social difficulties.

“Children are still developing the skills to respond to stress,” Yu says. “When children experience heightened or chronic stress, it can affect their ability to respond. That can have a long-term negative impact on their future health.”

Not all kids who face early life difficulties have health issues later on. Positive life experiences and relationships can also shape youth outcomes. Safe, stable, and trusting relationships can help guard against stressful circumstances.

Stress and Adversity

Many people experience extremely stressful or traumatic situations as children. These are referred to as adverse childhood experiences. Studies estimate about 2 out of 3 adults have had one such experience. And nearly 1 out of 6 adults report four or more.

Children who’ve had four or more adverse experiences are at higher risk for chronic health conditions as an adult. These include heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke. The risk for mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder, is also higher.

“Adversity is the presence of something that shouldn’t be there, like abuse,” Yu explains. “But it could also be the absence of something good, like parents’ care and affection. Children need Related to the ability to think, learn, and remember.
stimulation and emotional attention to thrive.”

In the past, scientists mainly looked at the number of adversities kids had. Now, they’re untangling differences between the types of experiences. For example, some adversities may primarily affect kids’ cognitive development. Others may mainly impact emotional or social development.

Yu’s team recently studied a group of over 49,000 children. They tracked the type of adversities the kids experienced. Then, they looked at their cognitive functioning at age 7. Their adverse experiences could be grouped into six distinct patterns. For example, some kids only experienced family instability. This involves two or more changes in their family structure. Others experienced family instability, family loss, and poverty together. Each distinct combination of adversities impacted kids’ brains differently.

But kids don’t all respond to life events in the same way. “It may depend on children’s own interpretation of the events and how their brain adapts to them,” Yu explains.

Other researchers are looking at the positive outcomes of overcoming adversity. “Our brains try to adapt to our situation,” Tottenham says. “Early adversity does not just have a single outcome. Our developing brains are doing their best to fit the environment.”

For example, kids may be living in an environment where things are changing in an unpredictable way, Tottenham explains. “This may lead to an improved ability to be flexible and change tasks rapidly,” she says.

One thing that makes a difference in how kids respond is a good support system. Tottenham has found that strong relationships with caregivers are especially helpful.

Protective Relationships

“One of the most important positive childhood experiences is having an adult who cares about you,” says
Dr. Caitlin Canfield, a child development researcher at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Someone who can help you through stressful situations, or even just through regular life. That could be a parent. But it could be a teacher, a coach, or any adult in a child’s life.”

Adults who can model and teach healthy coping skills are key. Canfield’s team is working with pediatric clinics to offer parent education programs. They’re testing a program called PlayReadVIP. It uses videos of parents playing and reading with their kids. This helps reinforce parents’ strengths and set goals.

Canfield’s team is also testing a program called Smart Beginnings. This program pairs PlayReadVIP with one called Family Check Up. Family Check Up uses home visits to build skills to get kids ready for school and to thrive in learning. The home visits also aim to improve family challenges. Examples include increasing family communication or reducing parental depression.

“If parents are depressed, they may not be able to do all of the things that they would like to do. That might interfere with their ideal parenting,” Canfield explains. “Social support and resources that break the pattern of depression can impact parenting practices. That can impact kids’ outcomes.”

Canfield is also looking for ways to provide families with local community resources. “We’ve shown that social support for parents can help shield kids against stressors,” she says. “Parents need to feel like their neighborhoods are safe. Or, that they have social networks in their neighborhood. Then, when they are facing stressors—financial or otherwise—they’re more able to protect their kids from those impacts.”

Kids have the ability to adapt and overcome difficult situations. Adults can help kids build upon these abilities. “Supportive networks and other protective practices in their lives can help kids adapt and build resilience. This helps counter the effects of adverse childhood experiences,” says Yu. See the Wise Choices box for tips on building positive childhood experiences.