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How Does Stress Affect Children’s Brains?

Promising research on adverse childhood experiences and resilience

Senior Airman Austin Harvill . CMSAF stresses family, resilience. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons
Source: Senior Airman Austin Harvill . CMSAF stresses family, resilience. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons

Molly grew up with an alcoholic mother, trying to care for her mother and two younger brothers. Dean lived in an inner city neighborhood, riddled with drugs, gang wars, and street violence. Dan’s family endured years of homelessness, sleeping in their car or a series of shelters, and despite growing up in a wealthy family, Laura often collapsed in tears when her stepfather cursed, slapped, and beat her mother.

What do these children have in common?

ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences—that cause toxic stress, affecting children’s brains and increasing their risk for depression, delinquency, poor school performance, drug and alcohol addiction, heart disease, and other long-term problems. The more ACEs children have, the more serious their trauma and health risks.

Yet research has shown that even one person who cares—a teacher, coach, neighbor, family member or friend—can help these children develop resilience, overcoming adversity to develop greater hope for the future (Werner, 1993;Werner & Smith, 1989).

Other factors that promote resilience are:

  • A greater understanding of ACEs
  • Becoming in touch with and managing feelings
  • A network of friends
  • Positive school experience
  • Cultural experiences (music, dance, art)
  • Caring for animals
  • Positive sports experience
  • Finding a safe space, a refuge from stress—in the home, school, church, or neighborhood (See Gilligan, 2000)

What about you?

Did you have any ACEs in your life? Were you scared, neglected, humiliated, or abused growing up? If so, you can still take steps to build greater trust and resilience in your life by:

  • Building a caring relationship—with a friend, family member, therapist, or personal coach.
  • Learning to honor your feelings with greater mindfulness and self-compassion (Warren, Smeets, & Neff, 2016).
  • Cultivating a network of supportive friends.
  • Finding a positive outlet in the arts, sports, volunteer work, or caring for animals.
  • Creating a space where you feel safe, nurtured, and at peace.

Do know a child who is suffering from ACEs? If so, how can you help with some vital factors to promote resilience? For more information about ACEs and resilience, see: and


Gilligan, R. (2000). Adversity, resilience and young people: the protective value of positive school and spare time experiences. Children & Society, 14, 37-47.

Warren, R., Smeets, E. & Neff, K. D. (2016). Self-criticism and self-compassion: Risk and resilience for psychopathology. Current Psychiatry, 15, 18-32. For more information about self-compassion, see

Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: Adams-Bannister-Cox. Originally published 1982.

Werner, E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 503-515.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web sites at and

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