Sample Literature Review On Children & Stress: How Can Early Exposure To Stress Affect Children’s Development?
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Stress is undoubtedly among the inevitable parts of every person’s daily lives. Simply put, everybody cannot avoid experiencing stress everyday. Stress, as described by some sources, is the overall responsive mechanism that the human body manifests when confronted by various demands and other stimulating factors from the environment it moves in (NASP, 2012; The Psychology Foundation of Canada, n. date). Often associated with anxiety, fear, threat, and burnouts, stress is generally demarcated as a negative feature of life that everyone experiences, even children. Children, just like adults, also experience stress from various sources and the effects of such stress on their development is a significant issue that needs to be thoroughly investigated. The purpose of this literature review is to determine the causes of stress commonly experienced by children and its effects on their ongoing development. Knowing how and why children get stressed is important because it will make the interventions available today more relevant to the actual problem and therefore more effective.
One of the ways by which organisms sustain life is through keeping internal environment constant despite changes in the external environment—a process called homeostasis (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Simply put, homeostasis is the body’s natural way of balancing its natural state with the ever-changing nature of the environment it moves in. However, this act of balancing can be seriously threatened by what is called stress or the body’s natural response to any physical or emotional disturbances (Schneiderman et al., 2005; Kaneshiro, 2014). Stress is generally caused by stressors or the actual threats that the body recognizes and reacts upon (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Being constantly linked to negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, and fatigue, stress is seen as a solely negative feature of life. But stress can either be good or bad. Good stress generally happens when the threat or stressor involved causes disturbances only for a short period of time (Schneiderman et al., 2005; Kaneshiro, 2014; Thompson, 2014). Good stress is said to be the optimal amount of stress that our body can tolerate without causing harmful effects (NASP, 2012). Good stress also reinforces positive developmental and behavioral changes that shape an individual’s coping mechanisms (Thompson, 2014). In general, good stress can be characterized as any short-term stress that is mild, predictable, and highly manageable, resulting to enhanced biological functioning and the reinforcement of mastery and competence in an individual (Thompson, 2014). Good stress, indeed, may be considered to be the beneficial stress and the complete opposite of bad stress.
Bad stress, as the name implies, is the stress that causes negative outcomes for an individual. Contrary to good stress, bad stress is longer in duration and may even be recurrent or chronic (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Bad stress generally occurs when a stressor overwhelms an individual’s coping mechanisms in respond to stress to the point where he/she finds it hard to respond accordingly to the changes or demands of his/her environment (NASP, 2012). Generally, bad stress can cause negative health outcomes including tissue damage and diseases (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Considering the negative effects of bad stress to individuals and the fact that it is also experienced by children just like adults, it is indeed important to investigate bad stress as it happens to children.
Stress experienced by children—also referred to as childhood stress—emerges from conflicts or problems that a child fails to resolve at the shortest time possible, creating a longer-term problem that inevitably triggers stress. Such conflicts can occur in various settings in which a child initially gets acquainted and familiarized. Such settings may include a child’s very home and school as well as the setting provided by the peer groups he/she joins (NASP, 2012). At home, factors such as divorce, abuse, lack of family routines, presence of illness among family members, and financial difficulties are among the most common causes of childhood stress (NASP, 2012; Schneiderman, 2005). At school, children confronted with unreasonable expectations, unstructured classrooms, and anxiety to failure are the ones commonly experiencing childhood stress (NASP, 2012). In peer groups, bullying, move within a community, pressure to fit in, and change of school buildings are among the common stressors encountered by children (NASP, 2012). Such stressors all have negative biological and psychological impacts on affected children.
Study regarding the role played by stress in impacting the biological development of children has been extensive over the years and among the most interesting information garnered regarding this aspect was the finding that childhood stress actually starts while a child is still in the womb of his/her mother (Thompson, 2014; DiPietro, 2004). As was suggested by some literature, pregnant women who experienced stressful events during pregnancy and at childbirth had a higher risk of giving birth to a child with an impaired stress-coping mechanism (Thompson, 2014), although other studies rebut this, saying that no evidence is concrete enough to prove the existence of such association between maternal and childhood stress (DiPietro, 2004). However, as was expounded by one study, a considerable amount of evidences showed that fetuses were highly sensitive to hormones and other physiological indicators of maternal stress inside the womb and their exposure to such environment increased their reactivity to stress after birth (Thompson, 2014). Aside from such, problems with emotional and cognitive functioning were also observed (Thompson, 2014). Cortisol, a hormone that signals the presence of stress, is elevated in pregnant women and is still increased in the emergence of any stressful event (Thompson, 2014). As suggested by one longitudinal study, early exposure to this maternal cortisol may be responsible for emotional dysfunction and an increase in the volume of the amygdala in the brain of female children aged 7 years old (Thompson, 2014). But aside from the prenatal factors, post-birth factors could also increase the likelihood of a child developing childhood stress (Thompson, 2014). As was showed, during the prenatal up to the early postnatal period of development, parts of the brain that are associated with stress response were maturing at a significantly rapid level (Thompson, 2014). Such finding indicated that newborn and even fetuses were still highly sensitive to stressors and any premature exposure to intolerable stressors could negatively affect their neurobiological development, usually making them hyperreactive even to tolerable stressors or hyporesponsive even to serious threats (Thompson, 2014). In general, children whose neurobiological development is hampered by irregular and intolerable stressors experience difficulty concentrating, remembering, and controlling and focusing their thoughts (Thompson, 2014). But aside from biological impact, childhood stress also affects children on the psychological level.
Children who are surrounded by a constantly turbulent environment are always at-risk of developing childhood stress that may interfere with their normal daily routines (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Stressors such as violence, abuse, and divorce/marital conflict are among the leading causes of stress in children that often leads to destructive results and serious threat to psychological development and well-being of a child (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Violence within the family is reported to be the major risk factor for the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among adolescents (Vickerman & Margolin, 2007). Violence towards children, especially if perpetrated by parents themselves, can serve as severely traumatic experience for children and adolescents that they develop PTSD (Vickerman & Margolin, 2007). Aside from violence, abuse is also a common stressor among children.
As demonstrated by some studies, children who experienced maltreatment and/or abuse suffered from serious psychological adversities that included dysregulation of affect, development of provocative behaviors, evasion from any intimate interaction, and difficulty maintaining attachment and/or relationships (Haviland et al., 1995, and Lowenthal, 1998 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005). Aside from such, abused children also tend to develop negative views towards education and learning which, in return, result to poor academic performance (Lowenthal, 1998 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005). Children who have been victims of far more serious cases of abuse such as sexual abuse tend to suffer from more severe forms of psychological disturbances which include increased levels of general distress and even the development of personality disorders (Polusny and Follett, 1995 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005). Aside from abuse, children who experienced seeing marital conflicts or divorce between their parents are also commonly affected by childhood stress.
Children whose parents divorced tend to develop antisocial behaviors, anxiety, and depression than their peers whose parents did not divorce (Short, 2002 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005). Aside from such, children who came from divorced couples tend to suffer from other psychological stressors as they approach adulthood, stating factors such as increased current life stress, family conflict, and lack of support systems as their main stressors (Short, 2002 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005). However, domestic stressors are not the only factors that negatively affect children’s psychological development.
Children who endure living in societies heavily affected by war, such as Kuwait and Lebanon, are also faced with major stressors that can also aid in the development of PTSD, like in cases of violence at home, as discussed earlier (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Chronic childhood stress indeed creates a web of complications that may result in long-term negative effects on the neurobiological development of children (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Chronic childhood stress can increase the risk for the development of “anxiety and mood disorders, aggressive dyscontrol problems, hypo-immune dysfunction, medical morbidity, structural changes in the CNS, and early death” (Shaw, 2003 as cited in Schneiderman et al., 2005, p. 3).
In general, studies included in this review have largely proved the negative effects childhood stress on the neurobiological development of children. Childhood stress, as was expounded earlier, can result to physical alterations of the brain and cognitive dysfunction if it remained chronic or recurrent in children’s lives. Obviously, these results can interfere with how a child develops and copes with his/her environment. While majority of the papers tackled in this review successfully proved the negative effects of childhood stress on both biological and psychological development of children, they still had some limitations. Concerning the issue of childhood stress, children’s age may be the common limitation as manifested by the studies evaluated. Children’s age is an important concern. As shown by the studies, effects of childhood stress may vary according to age. Some studies say that childhood stress can affect children while they are still in the womb (Thompson, 2014), while others refute this saying evidence proving the negative effect of maternal stress on children is not sufficient to make a concrete proof (DiPietro, 2004). Other studies, on the other hand, focused on children of preschool age to determine the effects of childhood stress (Schneiderman et al., 2005) while others focused on adolescents (Vickerman & Margolin, 2007). The lack of a standard age range for the study can be considered an issue as this creates an indefinite understanding of when childhood stress actually begins.
Childhood stress indeed causes negative effects on the neurobiological development of children. Current studies are doing really well in establishing the role played by childhood stress in hampering the development of children. Such studies have helped in establishing possible effective interventions. In the years to come, this area of psychology would indeed make a great difference and lasting impact especially if it can be used to identify probable ways to biologically reverse the impact of childhood stress on affected children. Furthermore, studies conducted in this area can be more helpful if they can find out more about why the impacts of childhood stress largely vary according to age and not according to the duration of exposure.
DiPietro, Janet A. (2004). The Role of Prenatal Maternal Stress in Child Development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 71-74. Retrieved from http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-fetal-development-project/_materials/_publications/currentdirections.pdf
Kaneshiro, Neil K. (2014). Stress in childhood. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002059.htm
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2012). Stress in Children and Adolescents: Tips for Parents, 1-2. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/families/stress.pdf
Schneiderman, N., et al. (2005). STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1,1-19. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141.
The Psychology Foundation of Canada. (no date). Kids Have Stress Too! Ideas, Tips and Strategies for Parents of Preschoolers, 1-20. Retrieved from http://www.psychologyfoundation.org/pdf/KHST_Booklet_for_Parents.pdf
Thompson, Ross A. (2014). Stress and Child Development. The Future of Children, 24(1), 41-59. Retrieved from http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/24_01_02.pdf
Vickerman, Katrina A., & Margolin, Gayla. (2007). Post-traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents Exposed to Family Violence: II. Treatment. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(6), 1-15. DOI: 10.1037/0735-7028.38.6.613
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