Whatever toxic stress doesn’t poison children makes them stronger, according to a recent literature review. While no experts dispute that early childhood stress—deaths in the family, ugly divorces, abuse, bullying—can be developmentally harmful, the authors write that it’s important to also highlight studies that suggest stress can make children more resilient and better at facing adversity later in life. Because when therapists assume that at-risk youth are operating solely at a deficit, they’re missing an opportunity to play to their patient’s strengths.
“There are strong theoretical reasons to expect that children growing up under conditions of adversity will develop specialized skills for that context,” coauthor on the study Bruce J. Ellis, professor of psychology at the University of Utah told Fatherly. Ellis and colleagues argue that focusing only on the negative fallout from stress stigmatizes children, rather than “recognizing, or attempting to leverage, unique stress-adapted skills and abilities,” he says.
Since the pool of positive research is barely a puddle, Ellis and colleagues looked at both human and animal research, including 25 human, 24 rodent, and 19 bird studies. Each study tested for a specific and measurable skill that developed as a result of stressful conditions. Human children were exposed to stressors such as neighborhood danger, neglectful and abusive parenting, and peer and school violence, whereas animal stressors included low levels of maternal licking, early weaning, and low food accessibility. Both animals and humans exposed to these forms of juvenile stress invariably had developmental problems. But they also had what the authors call “stress-adapted advantages” such as enhanced attention shifting, working memory, empathic accuracy, and detection of angry faces.
Ellis, who grew up attending inner-city schools, can relate. “Many of the kids that I knew did not do very well in classes but were actually smart as hell in terms of social interactions and street smarts,” he says. “So I knew something was wrong with all of the research I kept reading regarding their supposed mental deficits.” Future research, he adds, should focus on isolating the advantages of growing up under stressful conditions and developing strategies to help teachers capitalize on these students’ natural strengths—rather than simply mitigating their weaknesses.
Still, not every expert is convinced—which could be why the field of developmental sciences hasn’t paid as much attention to discovering the adaptive advantages of stress. “The adaptive benefits are an interesting hypothesis that must surely be true if the stressor is modest and short-term,” Kenneth Dodge, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University (who was not involved in the study) told Fatherly. But Dodge doesn’t see much merit in pursuing interventions based on slight exceptions and minor sources of stress, especially since there are already well-documented interventions that help children cope with severe stress.
Further, Dodge argues that kids could be ultimately hurt by putting too many eggs in this one basket. “We risk blaming the victim and excusing the source of the stressor,” he says. “This is a major problem.”
“We are not saying that stress is good for children,” Ellis responds. “But that is only half of the story.”