Kids in High-Stress Environments May Develop Unique Skills

While the detrimental effects of growing up in a high-stress environment are real and well-documented, they represent only part of the picture, researchers say.
July 10, 2017

Children who grow up in high-stress environments, such as dangerous neighborhoods or financially insecure households, often are described in scientific literature as being at high risk for learning and behavioral deficits.

Yet, a new research article involving the University of Arizona proposes that greater attention also should be paid to what's right with children who grow up in high-stress environments in order to help them succeed.

Stress-adapted youth may possess traits — such as heightened vigilance, attention shifting and empathic accuracy — that aren't tapped in traditional learning and testing situations. These skills may actually allow at-risk children to perform better than their peers from low-risk backgrounds when faced with uncertainty and stress, suggest the authors of the paper, which appears in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Having a better understanding of those stress-adapted skills could help populations such as educators more effectively work with children and adults who have grown up in stressful circumstances, said JeanMarie Bianchi, UA psychology lecturer and co-author of the research, which is based on a review of scientific literature.

"Once we are able to catalog the psychological advantages that are promoted by stressful early life conditions, we may be able to apply that to how we teach, from preschool through college, making learning more effective for individuals from different backgrounds," Bianchi said.

Existing research has shown that the more stressors children are exposed to, the more their performance in traditional learning and testing situations is compromised. Those stressors might include things such as neighborhood danger, food insecurity, exposure to environmental chemicals, bad housing conditions, neglectful or abusive parenting, low-quality child care, and peer or school violence, to name a few.

While the detrimental effects of growing up in a high-stress environment are real and well-documented, they represent only part of the picture, says Bruce J. Ellis, a University of Utah psychology professor and lead author of the new paper.

"The other part is that children fine-tune their abilities to match the world that they grow up in, which can result in enhanced stress-adapted skills," said Ellis, a former UA professor of family studies and human development. "We're trying to challenge a world view and give consideration to an alternative adaptation-based approach to resilience.”

Currently, the prevailing idea is that interventions are needed to prevent, reduce or repair the damage done to children who have grown up in high-stress situations. Most interventions are aimed at countering these deficits and getting "children and youth from high-risk backgrounds to act, think and feel more like children and youth from low-risk backgrounds," the paper's authors write. In other words, the dominant approach assumes at-risk youth are somehow broken and need to be fixed.

"Our argument is that stress does not so much impair development as direct or regulate it toward these strategies that are adaptive under stressful conditions," Ellis said. "Stress-adapted children and youth may perform better on tasks that involve situations and relationships that are relevant to them, such as social dominance. They also may perform better in settings that do not attempt to minimize the reality of daily stressors and uncertainties."

Research on stress-adapted skills in humans is limited, with the first theoretical work related to humans published in 2013 by Willem E. Frankenhuis, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Radboud University in the Netherlands and one of the co-authors of the current study. That work was followed by the first experiments in 2015 by the University of Minnesota's Vladas Griskevicius, also a current study co-author.

However, there is abundant proof in animals that developmental exposure to stress can improve forms of attention, perception, learning, memory and problem solving.

"It was so fascinating when we looked at the animal literature, there is actually a large body of research that supports the idea that stressful and chaotic environments can enhance certain skills," Bianchi said.

The next step, Bianchi said, will be to continue testing these ideas both in and outside of the lab. This will allow for a more complete picture of the effects of growing up under stressful circumstances and how stress-adapted skills could be leveraged to improve learning, intervention and developmental outcomes.