Stress Alters Kids’ Brains

Chronic stress can have an impact on cognitive abilities.

As adults, we’re accustomed to coping with chronic stress. We juggle a multitude of responsibilities and stressors, including work, finances, health, and family. That’s just part of modern life. But what about kids? Should they be exposed to the same levels of stress? Common sense would tell us that it’s probably not the best idea—and now there’s research to back that up.

According to the results of a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, stress may actually alter kids’ brains. In fact, the study results indicate that the anterior cingulate, a part of the prefrontal cortex, is smaller in highly stressed children.

The study involved kids ages 9 to 14 who answered questions about stressful events in their lives and also underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans. The researchers used the scans to examine the differences in amounts of gray matter and white matter as well as the size of the anterior cingulated cortex, which is believed to play a role in a wide range of cognitive tasks.

They found that kids who had highly stressful lives not only had smaller anterior cingulated cortexes, less gray matter, and less white matter—they also performed more poorly than other kids on spatial memory tasks. What’s more, highly stressed children had more trouble with tests of short-term memory than their unstressed counterparts.

The researchers speculated that stress might cause chemical changes—such as elevated cortisol levels—that affect brain cells. They don’t know if the compromised brain development is temporary or permanent. Ongoing research will likely evaluate the long-term effects of stress on the brain.

In the meantime, what does this mean for you as a parent? It’s not a simple, black-and-white issue. Stress is a normal part of life and it is impossible, unrealistic, and even unhealthy to avoid it altogether; however, kids who experience intense and lasting stress appear to suffer some serious cognitive consequences—so it’s important to limit stress as much as possible.

If you want to raise emotionally healthy youngsters, start by giving them plenty of opportunity to play. In addition, you may want to consider teaching your children stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or guided imagery. Music is also an excellent tool for reducing stress and promoting peace.

The bottom line—a peaceful household feels good for everyone and also helps with healthy brain development.



Hanson JL, Chung MK, Avants BB, et al. Structural variations in prefrontal cortex mediate the relationship between early childhood stress and spatial working memory. Journal of Neuroscience. 2012; 32(23): 7917-7925.