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5.6: Childhood Stress and Development

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What is the impact of stress on child development?  Children experience different types of stressors.  Normal, everyday stress can provide an opportunity for young children to build coping skills and poses little risk to development.  Even more long-lasting stressful events such as changing schools or losing a loved one can be managed fairly well.  But children who experience toxic stress or who live in extremely stressful situations of abuse over long periods of time can suffer long-lasting effects.  The structures in the midbrain or limbic system such as the hippocampus and amygdala can be vulnerable to prolonged stress during early childhood (Middlebrooks and Audage, 2008).  High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can reduce the size of the hippocampus and effect the child’s memory abilities.  Stress hormones can also reduce immunity to disease.  The brain exposed to long periods of severe stress can develop a low threshold making the child hypersensitive to stress in the future.  However, the effects of stress can be minimized if the child has the support of caring adults.

In the next lesson, we continue to look at childhood as we examine the period between starting school and entering adolescence known as middle childhood.

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