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Resilience to Childhood Environmental Stresses

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Resilience to Childhood Environmental Stresses 

The extent to which particular children are able to avoid the negative effects that are generally associated with certain childhood experiences such as poverty and abuse.

Baker, Toronto, PPG2012 


There currently exists a great deal of research and evidence indicating that certain childhood experiences tend to have a negative impact on development outcomes. Living in poverty, crime-ridden neighbourhoods, or single-parent families are all widely believed to, on average, have a negative impact on development outcomes. The overwhelming majority of this evidence comes from correlational studies, which can make it difficult to conclusively demonstrate the relationship between environmental factors and outcomes. However, the overwhelming majority of evidence that does exist from a variety of types of studies very strongly suggest that exposure to environmental “adversities” generally raises the risk of conduct disorders and other negative developmental outcomes in children.

Although the evidence is strong that environmental “adversities” generally have negative effects, the existing research also clearly indicates there is enormous heterogeneity in the response of children to stressful environments.

In other words, while there is, on average, a negative impact on child development resulting from exposure to common environmental stresses, some children appear to show “no adverse behavioural reaction” as a result of them while others appear to be seriously effected. These different responses to similar stresses relate to both genetic and non-genetic “individual vulnerability,” or, in other words, the different levels of “resilience” possessed by different children.

Jennifer Jenkins, who has studied childhood resilience, writes that there are several different child-specific factors which influence the resilience of a particular child. The author places these factors into four categories:

  • biological moderators
  • cognitive moderators
  • coping moderators
  • temperament moderators.

The author argues, citing relevant studies in each case, that each of these four general categories of attributes influence the resilience of children in the face of stress. One particularly important  area of current research is the extent to which biological modifiers influence resilience to childhood adversity.

While genetic factors appear to be important, there is also significant evidence that relationships and social support may influence children’s resilience to adversity. In her paper, "Psychological adversity and resilience," Jenkins cites a variety of studies, which indicate that parent-child relationship, sibling relationships and positive peer experiences all influence the extent to which children are resilient to stresses.

The complexity of human beings will obviously make it impossible, for the foreseeable future at least, to develop a firm understanding of why some people are more resilient to stress than others. Nonetheless, efforts to understand what the most important determinants of resilience are may help us better understand what enables human beings to cope with adversity, and hopefully to design therapeutic interventions which have the potential to lessen the harmful long-term influences of childhood exposure to particular types of adversity and stress.

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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance