The negative effects of stress on a child’s brain

Stress and children's brains

Stress is one of the hidden causes of so many health related problems. We need to be conscious of the negative effects of stress on a child’s brain. Our stress levels and those of our child may not be the same. We need to be conscious of our children’s stress levels. New Ways for Life are 4 life skills that young people can use to help them deal with stress and how to react in stressful times. Find out more

The damage of stress on the brain is alarming

The damage that is caused to a child’s brain when it is exposed to stress is something that everyone needs to know about. When there is stress on a child – it sends cortisol to a child’s brain.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a helpful stress hormone that helps you get ready to fight, flee or freeze. Helping your body to respond to stress or danger. This is a healthy, natural response to perceived threats.

Cortisol is released into the bloodstream at times of stress but also has many other important functions in your body. It is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of each kidney. Having the right cortisol balance is essential for human health and you can have problems if your adrenal gland releases too much or too little cortisol.

When we are threatened

So what happens to a child’s brain (and an adults brain) when you get threatened. You think OMG I’m in a crisis, cortisol that goes to the brain. In particular the cortisol goes to the “corpus callosum”. The corpus callosum is the bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the corpus collosum helps the right and left hemisphere work together. Eg Being creative and solving problems. The right hemisphere helps when you’re in a fight, flight or freeze situation, the left hemisphere focuses on problem solving.

Too much stress

What happens when a child has too much stress (is perhaps being bullied at school, or their parents’ are fighting continuously and the child witnesses this or a child is in an unsafe environment) is, it can overwhelm the corpus collosum so that the corpus collosum doesn’t get enough nourishment. Which it needs, which it gets from glucose, which is a form of sugar that the body makes. If the corpus callosum is constantly being blocked by continual stress and too much cortisol on a day to day basis, the nerves shrink and may even die. This is not good.

Your child may suffer from an underdeveloped or smaller corpus callosum by over exposure to stress. The kind of stress that can cause this might be living in a volatile environment, being exposed to parent’s that fight all the time, perhaps there is physical abuse that they witness or is happening to them, or it could be verbal abuse towards them ie- you’re stupid, you are never going to be any good at that, it could be neglect, or a child might be scared of the environment that they live in.

Why is this so important?

Minimal stress is very important, especially in the early stages of life because this helps to program the size of the corpus collosum for the child’s brain as the child grows up. So if there is too much stress and this shrinks the child is more likely to be reactive and to have problems getting back to problem solving because the corpus collosum has  unable to grow to its full potential.

So watch out for too much stress exposure for your child. A lot of adults think that arguing in front of them won’t affect the kids, it does!  Or they think because the kids were in their rooms or out of sight or out of hearing, they don’t know what’s going on. They do!

If you talk to counsellors, or psychologists or children’s lawyers: They all say, ‘The kids know’. Kids know when there is violence but they also know when their parents are angry at each other or just don’t like each other. If your child lives with you and you are divorced or separated – they get a sense of the intense feelings that you are having towards your ex-partner, ie: you might roll your eyes or you might speak badly about the other person, or you scream or you hang up the phone in an aggressive way or you throw your phone. Whatever it is or however you react, this can trigger cortisol and stress for your child.

The potential for damage……

Repeated stress creates too much cortisol, which means potential damage.

Anger can also be a cause of an under developed corpus callosum. Keep this in the forefront of your mind as another consequence of anger. If a child is exposed to too much stress caused by arguing parents or angry parents…… can have damaging effects on the brain.


If a child is exposed to too much stress caused by abuse (not just physical abuse but verbal abuse too and any form of neglect), especially during their early childhood, they are likely to have the part of their brain that helps them to solve problems and manage stress considerably underdeveloped. 

When a child is dealing with continual stress, it will trigger their brain to respond, their brain will flood with cortisol, and in turn, this harms their brain development and their potential to grow a strong and healthy brain. 

How you can help prevent your child’s exposure to stress?

Be aware of how you behave around your child and avoid being frightening or leaving them to feel frightened. 

Research Centre at Harvard University

Below you will read about what research is being done on the effects of stress on a child’s brain from: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

  • Medical professionals and researchers have long studied the effect of adverse childhood experiences(ACEs) and lifelong mental health and addiction. Now awareness is growing of the link between childhood trauma on long-term physical health.
  • The more ACEs a person suffers as a child – divorce, domestic violence, family members with addiction – the higher the risk of problems later in learning, mental and physical health, even early death.
  • That’s because people with ACEs are more likely to experience “toxic stress” – repeated, extreme activation of their stress response.
  • Toxic stress affects the developing brain, the immune system, the cardiovascular system and the metabolic regulatory system, says Al Race, deputy director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. It dramatically increases the risk of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, among other costly health conditions. 
  • Children with four or more ACEs are four times more likely to suffer from depression in their lifetimes, eight times more likely to become alcoholics and 20 times more likely to use intravenous drugs, research shows. Those who are exposed to very high doses of adversity without caring adults to help can have more than double the lifetime risk of heart disease and cancer and a nearly 20-year difference in life expectancy.
  • “There’s a huge body of science that shows the connection between the early years of life with a wide range of health problems later in life,” Race says. “Toxic stress allows us to understand why that relationship exists and how it can get inside developing biological systems in the body.”
  • Kaiser Permanente worked with the  federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to produce the original study on ACEs more than 20 years ago. 
  • About 25 percent of adults have experienced at least three or more ACEs.
  • In her book, Harris describes physical and emotional abuse as common for both the diverse patients at her low-cost clinic and the wealthy people in her area. 
  • “I see it every day in my practice,” Harris says.
  • She sees children who experience frequent infections, failure to grow well and learning disabilities. 
  • The effect can start in infancy, Harris says, and is experienced by even sleeping babies who are in stressful environments.
  • One of the key ways parents can protect their children, she says, is by nurturing healthy relationships outside the home, especially if they experienced their own traumatic childhoods.
  • “All of the research is telling us that relationships are healing,” Harris says. “Folks who have high levels of social support are more resistant to the flu and have better immune functioning.”
  • Sleep, good nutrition, mindfulness and exercise also help. 
  • Here are common signs of toxic stress in school-age children, according to the Center for Youth Wellness:
  • Poor coping skills.
  • Behaviour and learning difficulties.
  • Mood swings.
  • Sleep problems.  
  • Overeating and other compulsive behaviors.
  • Fear and anxiety triggered by places or people that remind them of past trauma. 

  Your take home:

Repeated and continual stress on a child’s brain will create an under developed corpus callosum. An under developed corpus callosum will have damaging effects and reduce a child’s ability to handle stress later on in life.

Remember to Check yourself and use Moderate behaviour, Flexible Thinking, and Managed Emotions.

How do we do that? 

Contact Us to find out more about how you can implement the New Ways for Life program in your school or youth group.

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