Stress, vulnerability and resilience in children

Is risk and adversity damaging to children and their development? Not necessarily, writes John Oates.

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The emotional well-being of children and young people depends on them experiencing the right sorts of nurturing environments. It also depends on them not being exposed to excessive risks to their development; but children seem to differ in how resilient they are if they do experience challenges. Risk and resilience are complex and much debated concepts throughout the social sciences but have become increasingly central to studying children’s lives over the past 20 years as researchers try to understand why different risk factors have different impacts on different children.

Using a variety of methods and coming from various disciplinary and philosophical backgrounds these researchers have asked questions such as ‘Why do some children cope with adversity while others do not?’ or: ‘Why are some children overwhelmed by difficulties which others overcome relatively easily?’. Developmental psychologists have been at the forefront of these studies but have drawn on, and worked in close collaboration with, social workers, public health officials, sociologists, anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists. There are, however, no standard definitions of resilience, or agreement on how it can be measured or whether it is an outcome or a process.

Psychologists have used various models to explain why different children react differently to the same risks. One, the diathesis-stress model, is based on the idea that each individual has their own specific stress threshold, above which there are negative effects, either on immediate behaviour or on longer-term outcomes. ‘Diathesis’, from the Greek word for ‘disposition’, refers to the assumption that through genetic variation, effects on the foetus through pregnancy or early experiences, each individual comes to have their unique ‘stress threshold’.

Other models, such as the differential sensitivity model suggests that individuals differ in their responses to environmental stress, not in terms of thresholds, as in the diathesis-stress model, but instead in their profiles of response to different levels of stress. This model is based more on a ‘sensitive versus robust’ model of differences, such that ‘sensitive’ individuals may respond more negatively to high levels of stress than ‘robust’ individuals, but may also respond more positively to less stressful, more supportive environments than ‘robust’ individuals.

Not all forms of risk or adversity are necessarily harmful to children. Some degree of adversity and stress is an inevitable part of human life and learning to cope with them is an important part of the developmental process. It could be said that children who have never suffered adversity are disadvantaged when they become adults because they have not developed coping mechanisms and may react inappropriately when confronted with situations they have no resources to deal with.

Some psychologists argue that stress is not always harmful to children; it can be tolerable or even beneficial and several childhood experiences, such as starting as a new nursery or having a new sibling, can become positive learning experiences, as long as the child has the necessary support to deal with them. In line with Donald Winnicott’s concept of ‘good-enough’ parenting, there is evidence that exposure to mild levels of stress that a child can cope with, ‘inoculates’ against the effects of stress later in the life span. Three types of stress can be distinguished.

  • beneficial stress, as mentioned above;
  • tolerable stress i.e. severe but still short-lived stress such as a death in the family, or parental divorce. Although this poses higher risks to children, with the right support from caring adults, children can adapt and cope without it having long term negative impacts or interfering with their development;
  • toxic stress: when adverse experiences faced by a child are chronic, repetitive, uncontrollable, and/or experienced without having access to support from caring adults. Such stress poses long term and very harmful risks to children in that it can interfere with their physical and emotional development

This is topic explored further in The Open University module E219 Psychology of Childhood and Youth, chapter 12.

John Oates is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University.

This article was previously published on OpenLearn in October 2019 and can be viewed here.

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