Stress can make or break a child. Manageable stress is necessary to help a child develop self-regulation and coping skills; yet, toxic stress can contribute to long-term mental and physical health problems. With this in mind, what can be done to help children in potentially stressful environments such as poverty or the foster care system?
Ross A. Thompson explains in the Future of Children that the early plasticity (capacity to change) of the brain and other biological systems offers hope to those who aspire to help at-risk children. "We may be able to intervene early in children's lives with experiences that help reorganize biological systems constructively." He advises, however, that plasticity declines over time so early screening and intervention is ideal. For instance, one study found that children who spent eight or more months in a Romanian orphanage, while being profoundly deprived of normal human relationships, before being adopted fared worse in terms of health consequences than similar children who only spent four months or less in the that environment.
Thompson emphasizes that a key point of intervention to ease the consequences of chronic stress is improving the quality of relationships between children and adults. "Whether two-generation programs target parents, preschool teachers, foster parents, or ... [grandparents], focusing on relationships is likely to enhance their success." This shows promise in helping strengthen families so children can experience a manageable amount of stress in their lives that contribute to healthy development.
To learn more about this approach to combating stress, see the Two-Generation issue of the Future of Children.