The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 13, 2012

Creating A Safe Harbor From The Storm

January 13, 2012

Last week, an op-ed in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof highlighted a recent American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on the damaging long-term effects of adversity and toxic stress on young children. This statement is based on a growing and compelling body of research that shows the lifelong impact of stress and adversity on children’s development and highlights the protective role that a nurturing and responsive caregiver can play in mitigating the effects of those events. It also, however, highlights the harmful effects for children who experience strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity or stress without the protective role of a caring supportive adult.

This work provides strong research evidence for what all of us know intuitively—we can deal with adversity better when we have family or friends who help us cope and feel less alone. But the difference for children is that feeling protected is essential for their healthy development, as a lack of support in stressful times affects how their brains are fundamentally wired and can hurt their future trajectories. This is particularly important for children who face significant levels of adversity.

Yet the realities faced by some low-income families stack the deck on this front. The instability, stress, and adversity some lower-income families go through not only make life difficult for children, but also challenging for parents to act as a buffer. Think about this fact as an example—a recent study on economic insecurity found that more than one out of four single parents experienced a more than 25 percent drop in their available household income between 2008 and 2010. How many of us would be able to be as responsive and nurturing to our children if faced with this level of economic stress?

The effects of stress on children are complex and we’re just starting to understand the nuances. But this research clearly highlights the critical importance of supporting low-income families with young children whose lives are being upended by the economic downturn. We should move quickly to identify the best ways to provide support—not only focusing on jobs and economic security, but also ensuring that young children in these families are able to get the stability and caretaking they need to buffer the effects of stress and adversity. This means investing in such efforts as home visiting initiatives to support parents and making sure that low-income families have access to stable and nurturing early child care and education that can provide children a safe harbor from the storm buffeting their families.

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