Chronic Adversity Shapes Character

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Ross Thompson explains that if chronic early stress biologically orients children’s development in ways relevant to emergent character, one can see how intergenerational continuities in opportunity may occur.

A newborn enters a world of unknowns. Is the world safe or dangerous? Are people nurturing or threatening? How will my needs be addressed? It will be many years before children can articulate answers to questions like these. But because their well-being depends on it, even newborns begin adapting to the conditions into which they were born based on questions like these.

This begins even before birth. The mother’s nutritional state influences fetal growth and metabolic rate in ways that can have life-long consequences. Mothers who are chronically stressed during pregnancy give birth to newborns who are more reactive to stress.

After birth, young children’s experiences shape further developmental adaptations. One example is language learning. Newborns cannot know whether they have been born in New York, Moscow, or Seoul, so the developing brain becomes sensitized to language-specific phonemes during the first year based on the characteristics of language they hear. This enables the child to become a more efficient language learner and contributes to the vocabulary explosion of the second year.

Language is not the only environmental condition to which young brains must adapt. Newborns also cannot know whether they have been born on the East Side or the West Bank, but adjusting to conditions signaling threat or safety is important to their survival. Young children living in stressful conditions, such as in families beset by poverty or chronic marital conflict, show intensified biological responses to stress. They also exhibit heightened vigilance to threat, poorer emotion regulation, and problems in cognitive and attentional self-regulation that derive, in part, from the downstream effects of stress hormones on other developing brain systems, such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. This constellation of biological and behavioral adaptations develop in response to chronic stress. But they also prepare the child for continuing adversity by allocating mental resources to threat vigilance, fostering quick and strong reactions to perceptions of danger, and enabling rapid mobilization of resources to confront immediate challenges.

Such adaptations carry inherent trade-offs. Mental and attentional resources devoted to threat vigilance are important for anticipating an adult’s anger, but these resources cannot as readily be devoted to exploration and learning. Threat monitoring undermines the development of constructive social relationships with others. Adapting to the requirements of one environment, such as the home or neighborhood, may render children less competent in managing the requirements of a different environment, such as a classroom.

These early biological and behavioral adaptations are not immutable. Just as children can later learn another language, they can also learn how to function in different settings that present different supports and challenges. But the characteristics of early environments, especially if they endure, may leave an enduring “accent” in the child’s natural response tendencies even in different settings and with different people.

Scholars characterize these early influences as “biological programming” or “experiential canalization” of behavior. Together they emphasize the importance of the signals conveyed by early experiences that shape developing biological and behavioral systems to prepare the child for life in the conditions into which they have been born.

How is this relevant to character development, especially as it relates to intergenerational mobility? In three ways.

First, early experiences influence the development of character attributes most relevant to later success such as self-regulation, resilience, and prioritizing future rewards over present ones. Self-regulation, for example, is essential to persisting in the face of obstacles, focusing on long-term goals, and monitoring progress along the way. But one of the consequences of chronic early stress is self-regulatory problems, with children in poverty or family adversity exhibiting greater impulsivity, diminished cognitive or attentional focus, and poorer emotional self-control. Resilience is undermined when early adversity contributes to heightened reactivity to challenging or difficult events. Future time perspective may be lost when immediate challenges command attention. The conclusion is not that mature character attributes are determined by early experiences. Rather, it is that long before character education begins, there are inherent capacities shaped by early experience that make the development of these attributes easier or more difficult.

Second, character is biologically as well as behaviorally embedded in the developing person. Character is based on developing behavior and biological systems that provide the basis for self-regulation, focused thought, emotional self-control, planfulness, and other characteristics. And the development of these systems is profoundly influenced by early experiences that provide security or create adversity to which these systems must adapt.

One reason I have focused on early stress is that its biological and behavioral effects on very young children have been well studied. Another reason is to emphasize that by contrast with prevalent portrayals of “toxic stress” and its consequences, the stressors that affect young children are not only threat and danger, but also the absence or withdrawal of nurturing social support. Both constitute “toxic stress” for young children. And just as adults can be sources of stress, they can also buffer the stresses that children encounter from other sources by providing reliable emotional support. The quality of parent-child relationships is the central ingredient to the environmental conditions to which young children adapt, both behaviorally and biologically.

Third, if chronic early stress biologically orients children’s development in ways relevant to emergent character, one can see how intergenerational continuities in opportunity may occur when children and their families are subject to the same stressful life conditions that endure over time. When parents have grown up in dangerous neighborhoods or risky families, and face continuing financial or relational problems, their own stress reactivity, self-regulation, and resilience are comparably undermined. Indeed, we might consider what it means when entire communities or nationalities are subject to chronic adversity – through occupation, war, economic devastation – whose behavioral and biological consequences for those who endure them compromise capacities to rebuild and heal.

Young children adapt biologically and behaviorally to the conditions in which they are born because those conditions are likely to endure. Ensuring that those conditions improve for children facing chronic adversity is one way a compassionate society builds character strengths in its youngest citizens.