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Stress and kids: the latest

Published on: December 30, 2013

Sustained household stress can have long-lasting negative effects on kids.

Researchers are beginning to understand the connections between a child's experience of stress and later health problems, but they still haven't pinpointed how much stress is enough to produce the effect.

  • Early stress in the home is significantly associated with later physical disease and early death. We'll get into the specifics shortly, but the diseases in question run across a wide range, from cancer to heart and liver and lung disorders to reproductive health problems to higher rates of alcohol abuse and smoking.
  • Extremes such as child abuse increase risk for these outcomes, but less extreme influences predict these outcomes as well. We're talking about sustained conflict, a lack of emotional warmth in family relations, inadequate and inept parenting practices (e.g., heavy use of reprimands, punishments, shouting), and general chaos and disruption.
  • For a harsh stressful environment, there is a dose-response relation: As stress rises higher, so do deleterious neuroendocrine changes in the child's body that relate to susceptibility to disease.
  • The real danger comes from chronic stress—the body's adaptive reaction to stress that goes off and on as part of ordinary life does not seem to have undesirable consequences.
  • Because not everyone responds the same way to chronic stress, we can say only that harsh environments increase risk, not that they invariably produce bad outcomes.

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