How can you stress test your children?

Can disturbed stress axis be normalized during puberty?

The ability to regulate negative emotions is essential for child development. Adolescents who are less able to regulate anxiety and frustration have an increased risk of having less control over their behavior as adults. They are more likely to act aggressively or deviantly in stressful social situations. In a long-term study, researchers from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities tested the hypothesis whether disorders in the stress management system triggered by traumatic early childhood can be recalibrated later in puberty. At least if caregivers maintain a supportive and reliable parenting style in this development phase. The researchers compared the stress responses of 129 toddlers raised in non-American homes and adopted by US parents between the ages of six months and five years with the stress management of 170 adolescents who grew up as biological children in American parental homes.

The children and adolescents were each subjected to a test for social assessment stress at different stages of puberty, in which they had to prepare for a presentation and solve arithmetic problems in the expectation of being assessed by adults. Using saliva samples, the authors measured before and after this Trier Social Stress Test in each case the so-called cortisol reactivity, which provides information on an unbalanced hormonal stress axis. The cortisol level is usually lower in children who have difficulty dealing with stressful situations due to traumatic experiences in their childhood. At the individual level, the cortisol reactivity of the adopted children gradually increased in accordance with the five stages of puberty, gradually becoming more similar to the reactivity of the unadopted adolescents. According to the authors, these results suggest that interventions that help improve the care environment during puberty can recalibrate a stress axis that was shifted in early childhood. The current study is currently unable to say whether this is also reflected in the behavior of adolescents.

The results were published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (see primary source).



Prof. Dr. Robert Kumsta

Head of the Chair for Genetic Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr University Bochum

“The findings are quite surprising and also relevant to our understanding of the long-term consequences of unfavorable early living conditions. There are numerous findings that show that the regulation of the hormonal stress axis is disturbed into adulthood after aversive childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or home experience. Both an inadequate and an excessive cortisol response after stress are observed. "

“The findings now indicate that, in addition to early childhood, when unfavorable experiences can 'program' stress regulation, puberty appears to be another sensitive phase in which recalibration (or reprogramming) can take place if the Living conditions are supportive, predictable and safe. "

"The stress test used - the Trier social stress test - is the gold standard for examining stress reactivity under laboratory conditions."

“Comparability of the groups: In an ideal study design, one would have compared the children with institutional deprivation experience with children of the same ethnic group who were also adopted in the USA but had no home experience. The comparability of the groups is of secondary importance in the available findings, however, since within the group of former home children there is a change in the stress reaction in the course of development - the normalization of stress reactivity associated with puberty.

“The results are convincing. Methodologically, the study was carried out impeccably, especially the longitudinal approach allows robust statements that cannot be made unreservedly in cross-sectional studies.

“The question is whether deficits in emotion processing or emotion regulation have actually been recalibrated. The study only makes a statement about the regulation of the hormonal stress axis and shows a normalization of the cortisol response. This can - but does not necessarily have to - mean that the subjective stress response has also been changed. It is more the rule that different indicators of the stress reaction (hormonal, psychological, peripheral-physiological) are not related to one another. That doesn't make the findings any less important, because a change in the way the hormonal stress axis works is in itself a proven risk factor for a number of mental and physical illnesses. "

“A research question that follows is the importance of recalibration for later development. So the question is whether such a recalibration protects against psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders, which occur in former home children especially between the ages of 15 and 18. "

“The question also arises whether the consequences of extreme deprivation experiences can also be reversed. Our results of the 'English and Romanian Adoptees Study', which examines former home children of the Ceausescu regime, show, for example, that in late-adopted children who spent between six and 42 months in homes, at least in comparison to those who were adopted early, mental health problems are stable into young adulthood. Changes in cortisol regulation are still evident in the late adopters, and the brains of the now young adults are significantly smaller [1]. "

“A positive finding, which in turn speaks in favor of an existing plasticity of the brain even after extreme experiences of deprivation, is the observation that cognitive development normalizes in the late adopters; In other words, the IQ increased by an average of more than 15 points between adoption and testing in young adulthood. "

Information on possible conflicts of interest

No information received.

Primary source

Gunnar MR et al. (2019): Pubertal stress recalibration reverses the effects ofearly life stress in postinstitutionalized children. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.1909699116.

References cited by the experts

[1] Sonuga-Barke EJS et al. (2017): Child-to-adult neurodevelopmental and mental health trajectories after early life deprivation: the young adult follow-up of the longitudinal English and Romanian Adoptees study. The Lancet; 389 (10078): 1539-1548. DOI: 10.1016 / S0140-6736 (17) 30045-4.

Further sources of research

Ellis BJ et al. (2019): Development Adaption to Stress: An Evolutionary Perspective, Annual Review of Psychology; Vol 70: pp 111-139. DOI: 10.1146 / annurev-psych-122216-011732.