The Effects of Toxic Stress On Child Development

February 2021

Written by neuroscientist Isabelle Abbey-Vital. Isabelle spent some time with CCT, visiting our youth centres in March 2020.

The social challenges that face modern society, the ability to work productively, be a good citizen and stay healthy, all have their roots in early health and development.

A strong foundation in early childhood results in much better and more effective development later in life.

The most important thing children need to thrive is to live in an environment of relationships that begins in their families but also extends out to adults in their wider community. What children need is for that entire environment of relationships to be invested in their healthy development.

How Does Toxic Stress Affect Brain Development

When children are at their most crucial stages of development, chronic stress has a serious impact on brain development. Emotionally loaded and stressful events change the architecture and signalling in the brain in a number of key ways. Children who are at the greatest risk for the poorest outcomes in learning, health and behaviour are children who experience a pile-up – an accumulative burden of risk factors, characterized by food scarcity, neglect, extreme poverty, institutionalisation, substance abuse and mental illness. These children are at risk of developing a ‘toxic stress response’, which refers to the bodily response to being exposed to stress over prolonged periods (1).

In stressful situations, our brains respond by producing a number of key hormones, including one important chemical called cortisol. In normal situations, cortisol acts as our in-built alarm system for helping us cope with stressful situations in our environment. When presented with a perceived threat, cortisol helps coordinate our ‘fight or flight’ response, by boosting energy so we can handle stress, and quickly restore the balance afterwards. Short periods of stress is normal and aids in healthy development. However, prolonged elevation of cortisol can have a damaging effect on development and is especially harmful when it occurs in early childhood.

One area particularly sensitive to high levels of stress hormones is the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for our ability to reason, focus our attention, make decisions, understand language, and store everyday information as short-term memories (2). Extended exposure to stress hormones in this region changes the ability for the brain cells to communicate with one another, and restricts the formation of important connections within this brain region. The resultant impact on development will predispose children to learning and memory difficulties, and cognitive delays which will contribute to academic and school adjustment issues (4)

As the prefrontal cortex continues to develop and remain ‘plastic’ (i.e changeable) throughout early childhood, there is a key opportunity to alter and even reverse the damage, given the right interventions.

Long-term Measures to Combat Toxic Stress – Strengthening Adult Capabilities

CCT’s approach to combating toxic stress in early childhood is to focus on the development of the adults in children’s lives. By strengthening the capacity of everyone who interacts with children, CCT is able to address the root causes of toxic stress. Strong relationships help to reduce the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain. Even in circumstances of great adversity, the presence of strong, stable and caring relationships can significantly reduce the activation of stress hormones in stressful situations (i.e. cortisol).

CCT’s social workers partner with families to help them build empowerment plans and access services to support their needs and assist them to be better, more effective parents. Their family finance teams provide financial coaching to enhance the economic stability of the family. Providing a sustainable path for families to manage their finances, build businesses and generate more income helps to create a better, less stressful environment for children. This provides a long term and sustainable solution to reduce toxic stress for children as they grow. CCT’s medical outreach team provide health care support to ensure families are healthy and resilient.

The community is best placed to identify what the major sources of toxic stress are for children in their village. CCT works to mobilize the surrounding community, ensuring they have sufficient skills to help build and reinforce the capacities that parents need and co-design the programs that can reduce toxic stress and support families.

Community mobilisation involves establishing child protection networks who work to identify families most at risk as soon as possible. There is critical evidence confirming that early intervention is key. Community child protection networks provide an efficient and reliable route to identifying vulnerable children early and taking the necessary steps to intervene as soon as possible.

Short-term Measures to Combat Toxic Stress – CCT’s Youth Centres

Working with families and communities to address the root causes of toxic stress takes time. In the interim, CCT ensures that supports are embedded into communities that serve to immediately ameliorate the effects of toxic stress.

CCT’s youth centres programs reduce sources of stress in children’s lives.  They provide a safe and positive environment for children to play and learn supported by a community of responsive adults who are committed to promoting their healthy development.  The Youth Centre program is embedded into the village’s public school, providing at-risk children with an important opportunity to think creatively, develop their attentional skills, develop their executive function and self-regulation, work with others in teams and grow relationships with other children in a bright, happy and playful environment. Activities including semi-structured learning, free-play and self-directed learning foster confidence and creativity in children, which helps to rewire the brain, mitigating the damaging effects of toxic stress.

On a neurobiological level, by providing a regular respite from elevated stress hormones, the children have the opportunity to physically develop those all-important brain cell connections critical to their ability to function later in life. Therefore, positively impacting their ability to learn in school and make good choices for their lives.


  1. Pechtel P, Pizzagalli DA (2011). Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: an integrated review of human literaturePsychopharmacology (Berl) 214: 55–70.
  2. Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Re- views Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.
  3. Tierney, A.L. and Nelson, C.A  (20029) Brain Development and the role of experience in early years. Zero Three 30(2): 9-13
  4. Fuster JM.  (2002) Frontal lobe and cognitive development. Journal of Neurocytology 31 (3-5):373-385