Dangers of Prolonged Stress

Short-term stress does not harm brain development. Children who learn how to manage small stressors in a supportive environment develop the brain wiring they need to handle stress. Supportive, nurturing adults help children develop the wiring in their brains to cope during stressful times.

Prolonged or chronic stress without relief can permanently alter brain development. Synapse formation, myelination and pruning may be delayed. The connections formed in the brain as a result of ongoing stressful conditions will most likely be those that ensure survival. Areas responsible for reasoning and rational decision-making are likely to be under-developed.

Children who experience extreme neglect or deprivation tend to have less active brains, with fewer connections, than children who actively experience the richness of daily life in a supportive environment. Children who are deprived of sufficient food or regular positive interactions with adults, or who are confined to a crib and not allowed to explore, experience serious delays or impairments in brain development. The more serious and prolonged the neglect is, the more devastating the developmental problems can be.

Repeated exposure to violence can alter brain development. The intensity and frequency of trauma determine how the brain internalizes a traumatic event. The brain stem and limbic system set up a “fight or flight’ response to trauma or the memory of the trauma. The brain may attempt to protect itself through impulsiveness or withdrawal. Children who have experienced trauma or violence tend to react without thinking, to strike out, or to withdraw to protect themselves.

Children who experience prolonged trauma or neglect:

  • may not do well in school
  • may not be able to learn or process new information
  • may exhibit aggressive behavior
  • may not be able to develop caring relationships with others
  • will reflect the environment in which she has been raised