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.
Parent’s (and especially mother’s) work is not always beneficial for their children.
In the Future of Children, Carolyn J. Heinrich explains that working parents can be positive role models for their children, and the income they earn can improve their children’s lives. However, work can impair the developing bond between parents and young children (especially when parents work long hours or evening and night shifts); and stress that parents bring home can have a negative effect on parenting and the quality of the home environment, and thereby induce stress into children’s lives.
It seems that the balance between work and family ought to be of utmost concern to policy makers, especially in relation to low-income parents who are most likely to work in stressful jobs with few or no benefits, but what is the solution?
Heinrich points to two-generation interventions as a possibility to maximize the benefits and minimize the detriments of parents’ work. She mentions the Career Advance program, which was recently highlighted by National Public Radio, as an example of a two-generation intervention that targets parents with children in Head Start for workforce development services. This and similar programs focus on high-quality childhood education, job training that helps parents upgrade their workforce skills as well as family and peer support services. She explains that if these programs help parents secure better jobs that improve how they feel about their work and the role models and encouragement they offer to their children, then their children may reap benefits beyond those from just the education and stronger financial supports families realize from program participation.
To learn more about how two-generation programs can help families, see the latest issue of Future of Children, Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two-Generation Mechanisms.