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Adversity Can Affect Child Self-Regulation and Resilience

Adversity disrupts attention, stress hormones, and children’s adjustment.

We recently published a study that examined the effects of early adversity on young children’s development. We found that when families had lower income or an accumulation of many stressful circumstances — such as residential instability, illness, changes in family structure, and parent mental health or substance use problems — their children were more likely to show disruptions to key neurobiological systems that support child self-regulation and social-emotional well-being.

One system, executive control, underlies our abilities to focus attention, stop from doing things impulsively, organize and plan. Children experiencing the stress of lower-income contexts tend to have lower executive control.

The other system, the stress hormone system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA-axis), produces cortisol, which is a hormone that helps us rise to the challenges we are facing and respond to stress. In our study, we looked at diurnal cortisol, or the pattern of cortisol across the day. In a well-regulated system, cortisol is highest soon after waking in the morning, and it basically gets us up to tackle our day. It then drops throughout the day and is lowest in the evening. However, in our study, children experiencing substantial, accumulated stress had low cortisol levels throughout the day.

Both executive control and diurnal cortisol predict children’s social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment, so they are critical systems for child well-being. They both contribute to the ability to manage our attention, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, particularly in challenging or stressful situations. Disruptions to either executive control or diurnal cortisol can undermine self-regulation and have implications for mental health problems.

When this study was published, the press office at my university debated whether the public would have much interest in a study that was this “technical,” and I agreed that it might not be of great interest. However, we decided to write a story about the findings anyway. What I didn’t see coming was the public response to this research.

For some people, this research was very personal. I received emails from individuals, teens to adults, all with similar stories of tremendous adversity as children, who felt this research provided personal insight to many of the challenges they had experienced as children or were still experiencing. A teen who had attention and behavioral problems as a young child felt validated and that “being a ‘problem child’ growing up wasn’t my fault.” Some described recognizing from an early age that they were intellectually capable, avid readers, skilled with technology, etc., but somehow could not do well in school or were held back.

Others pointed out how they overcame their challenges, grew from them, and are living successfully. For one person, it was a nurturing adult coming into his life. For another, it was a rewarding academic experience with a teacher that turned things around. For more than one, it was the introduction of a stable, safe living situation. Many of the people who wrote to me described wanting to make sure to give their own children a nurturing, supportive, safe relationship so they wouldn’t have to have the same experiences, and some were already doing this.

Although the study was about the effects of adversity on biological systems that underlie our self-regulation, the take-away lesson for me was that this knowledge was validating to many people, helping them understand their experiences, and that there were many personal stories about how supportive, nurturing relationships and contexts can lead to resilience in the face of these experiences.


Liliana J. Lengua, Stephanie F. Thompson, Lyndsey R. Moran, Maureen Zalewski, Erika J. Ruberry, Melanie R. Klein, Cara J. Kiff. Pathways from early adversity to later adjustment: Tests of the additive and bidirectional effects of executive control and diurnal cortisol in early childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 2019; 1.