Stress in early life


Adoptive Families Association of BC
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Many children are placed for adoption as a result of unwanted pregnancies. These children may have been abandoned and some have been neglected and abused early in their lives. These situations cause stress for the child. Elevated stress levels, especially when sustained over a long period of time, have adverse effects on children. Stress has the potential to permanently impact the brain and body’s development.

There are a variety of things which may cause stress in a young child’s life. A few examples include, abandonment, neglect, abuse, illness, malnutrition, fear, instability, and isolation.

Prenatal exposure to stress can result in:

  • Difficulty controlling or regulating emotions
  • Low interest in social interaction / withdrawn
  • Problems in self regulation
  • Growth or developmental delays
  • Decreased motor skills
  • Abnormal sleep patterns
  • Increased emotional and behavioural problems
  • Lower immune response
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fear

Exposure to stress can also result in other long term conditions such as:

  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome
  • Depression

The treatment varies depending on the individual child. Elements such as age, severity of trauma or separation, personality, and environment all affect how the treatment should be approached. In most situations, it has been found that a stable, secure, and sensitive environment is extremely valuable in the healing process. Also the presence of other children of a similar age has been seen to lower a child's stress and increase his or her sense of security. Lastly, massage therapy has been found to decrease the level of stress hormones in infants.

Because of the stress and young age of the child it is not always possible for them to explain the trauma they have experienced. In many cases the fear associated with the early stress may seem illogical and confusing to prospective parents. For example, a child who survived a bombing may be terrified of a stereo system with loud bass. Also, in international adoption the language barrier can create an additional challenge in discovering the source of the stress.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.