Stress is something we tend to associate mostly with adulthood. We strongly associate stress with conditions in adult life like working, building personal relationships, marriage, financial issues, and so on.
But childhood stress is also a point of critical concern. Scientific studies indicate that stress levels and adverse mental health conditions we experience as adults may stem from stress experienced in childhood.
Childhood, in the adult imagination, is a period in a life characterized by freedom, playfulness, and innocence. In other words, childhood is free of worries. Children may not have to worry about earning money or saving for retirement. But children do experience stress in various forms.
Children reared in abusive homes, war zones, or other impoverished conditions experience severe forms of stress and trauma. Some parents and caretakers may believe that the kids would eventually grow out of these conditions. But science indicates that the effects of childhood stress can last a lifetime.
If you are not happy or otherwise mentally fulfilled, you may find these problems rooted in childhood events. But before exploring this possibility, let’s look at how childhood stress can affect individuals in a manner that negatively impacts them as adults.
Childhood Stress Increases Risk of Adult Depression
A well-known research project, titled the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, found strong links between childhood stress and mental health in adulthood.
The massive study was conducted over a long period to observe children as they grew into adulthood. Scientists followed children who had experienced what’s called “adverse effects” and observed how they fared as adults.
The adverse effects the children experienced included abusive home environments, alcoholic parents, mistreatment, and neglect. In other words, researchers focused on conditions that would undoubtedly cause recurring stressful conditions for children under the age of 5.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the researchers found that children who experienced adverse events in childhood were more prone to be depressed as adults. The researchers also found that stressful childhoods led to problem behaviors in adulthood, like substance abuse.
The children in the study were highly likely to have attempted suicide by the time they reach adulthood as well. Overall, the mental health issues stemming from childhood stress negatively affected the “life potential” of the adults.
That is to say, the kids’ ability to graduate from college or high school, get good grades, and remain employed were all affected by conditions resulting from childhood stress.
These adults suffered a myriad of issues, such as missing days of work more than the average adult in the same age range did. Those suffering from depression were also at risk for conditions like sleep disorders.
Childhood Stress Makes Adults Less Optimistic
It’s easy to understand that a child who lives in an abusive home would be stressed. But does this stress cause problems for these children when they are adults?
A researcher at Duke University conducted a study to examine this very question. This was a long study. The project observed [PDF] 72 boys, mainly of African American origin, for two decades in their lives.
All of the children in this study grew up in stressful home environments. Some experienced domestic violence or grew up with parents who had substance abuse problems. Others had parents who were divorced, struggled with money, or faced various adversities.
When the kids turned 26, the scientists had them come in and play cards while getting their brains scanned. The author of the study wanted to know how the men responded to reward and success.
The results were no less than shocking. The scientists found that a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum in these men showed slowed behavior.
The ventral striatum can simply be described as the part of the brain that processes reward. It is made up of neural pathways and plays an important role in driving motivation.
Because the ventral striata of the study’s subjects were not functioning as robustly, these men experienced poor motivation, a poor conception of self, and had low levels of optimism.
Even more striking was the finding that stress in childhood had a greater influence on adults’ brains than stress in teenage years.
Some participants in the study showed reduced activity in parts of the brain linked to depression and good moods. This condition was only observed in those who had experienced stressful events when they were between the ages of 5 and 9.
The researchers didn’t find similar brain patterns in subjects who had experienced stress in school years between the ages of 9 and 12, or as teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.
This particular study showed that childhood stress can fundamentally alter brain chemistry in children that they carry into adult life. As the study’s lead author put it, stressful childhood events become “biologically embedded.”
It goes on to show that the youngest are the most vulnerable to stress, both biologically and psychologically.
Childhood Stress Can Increase Risk of Memory Problems
The effects of stress in childhood aren’t limited to mood disorders like depression. Recent research has uncovered that childhood stress can make adults more vulnerable to issues like heart disease, strokes, immune system diseases, and memory problems like dementia.
A major study focused on this particular issue followed 1,000 children born in the seventies in New Zealand and 2,200 children born in the nineties in Britain. Scientists evaluated their stress “biomarkers”, or the indicators of hidden physical changes caused by childhood stress.
The researchers chose two groups of children from two countries to control for sociological factors. The findings in both groups were surprisingly similar. In the New Zealand group, children who were mistreated showed higher levels of biomarkers at an early age.
These biomarkers observed included elevated white blood cell counts, the presence of fibrinogen, and C-reactive protein. These fancy terms indicate something everyone can understand: inflammation.
In the British group of children the scientists observed, they found similar biomarkers. The children were demonstrating signs of inflammation as early as age 12. The physical changes were predictably accompanied by mood disorders like depression and anxiety in some children.
Inflammation sounds harmless enough to regular folk. However, this is a serious condition that, if not treated, can result in conditions like heart disease, one of the top killers in the world.
To be clear, not all children who experienced severe childhood stress associated with mistreatment had biomarkers for inflammation. Scientists were not sure why some did and others didn’t. It’s important to note that a large number of children did show these biomarkers.
Mental Health Aftermath of Childhood Stress is Nearly Inescapable
One of the most pressing questions regarding childhood stress is whether supportive homes later in life could improve outcomes for those who have suffered. At least one study indicates that this is unfortunately not the case.
One landmark study looked at a group of Romanian children who had been adopted by British families.
The children had spent the first three years of their lives in orphanages in post-Communist Romania, where they experienced stressful conditions like lack of care, inadequate nutrition, and poor hygiene.
The children, adopted by English families, had then spent 20 or so years in a supportive, loving, and well-to-do environment starkly different from the destitute orphanages they came from. Researchers wanted to know if the positive environment later in life negated the adverse effects experienced very early in life.
The researchers used questionnaires and medical tests to determine the cognitive and behavioral development of the children during their teenage years and mid-twenties. The results depended largely on how long the children had been in the orphanages.
The subjects who had only been in the orphanages for up to 6 months were not much different from the average British-born adults. In that, the rate of mental health problems they experienced was largely parallel to the average rates in Britain.
The story is drastically different for the majority of subjects who had been in the orphanages for longer. This cohort indicated higher rates of mental health problems like autism, attention deficiency, and behavioral issues.
As adults, this group was less likely than the average Briton to be employed or have educational achievements. Only one in five of these subjects indicated normal mental development on par with the average Briton.
The study’s authors concluded that early childhood stress is long-lasting, even if children later find themselves in a more positive environment.
Stress in early childhood, when children are under 9 years of age, affects the mental, social and cognitive development that lasts into adulthood. Childhood stress is strongly linked with higher occurrences of depression and anxiety in adults.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. Early life stress can alter the brain chemistry in children, making them prone to a myriad of mental health issues as adults.
Stunted development in parts of the brain is not reversible later in life. This would certainly affect the quality of life these children can have as adults.
It goes on to show that prevention is key to battling the long-term effects of childhood stress. What matters is proper care for children in early life and intervening as early as possible to rescue children in impoverished conditions.
If you are an adult suffering from mental health conditions like depression, you should be aware that early childhood conditions may have contributed to the condition. It’s highly recommended to talk to a healthcare provider about childhood stress and how it might be affecting you now.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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