Stressful environment for children. Environmental factors that trigger high cortisol levels in children

Stressful environment for children

Exposure to stressful environment triggers high cortisol levels in children. Remember that stress is a normal biological response and that the body naturally produces and releases cortisol as part of normal biological functions. But certain external or environmental factors can cause chronic stress and disrupt normal cortisol production.

Several studies have revealed that children living in a stressful environment have prolonged high cortisol levels. This is indicative of chronic stress. Factors that create a stressful environment for children are important to take into consideration. Research suggests that having prolonged high levels of cortisol can have several health implications in children.

Stressful household environment

Bad parenting and household problems create a stressful environment for children. The study of J. H Suor et al revealed that children living in low-income households who endure family instability and emotionally distant parents or caregivers have higher cortisol levels than children who only have to endure family instability.

Family instability includes inconsistencies or irregularities in household environment due to frequent changes in care providers, household members, or residence. Emotional distant parents or caregivers, on the other hand, are not only disengaged but are also harsh toward their children.

Conflict between parents also triggers higher cortisol levels in children. an earlier study conducted by P. T. Davies et al revealed that children who were very distressed and involved in response to parental fighting had higher levels of cortisol than children who were not involved in parental conflicts.

Stressful learning environment

Poor learning environment as determined is also a stress factor in children. Exposure to this environment through interaction with teachers results in excessive production of cortisol. A study conducted by J. A. Lisonbee et al illustrated  several situations responsible for triggering higher cortisol levels in children attending childcare facilities.

For example, children placed within a classroom composed of 20 students had demonstrated higher cortisol levels that were sustained throughout the day as opposed to children placed in a classroom of about 10 students.

The quality of relationship with teachers also creates a stressful environment for children. Children who have clingy relationship with their teachers also had sustained high level of cortisol from morning to afternoon. Furthermore, children in a conflicted relationship with their teachers due to negative perceptions had cortisol boost during their one-on-one session or personal encounter.

Stressful living environment

Another important environmental factor for stress in children is socioeconomic status. Researchers Edith Chen, Sheldon Cohen, and Gregory E. Miller found out that prolonged exposure to impoverished environment as determined by low socioeconomic status results in sustained high levels of cortisol in children. Specifically, in following a sample of children every six months for two years, the obtained results revealed that cortisol levels nearly doubled in children living under low socioeconomic status compared to children in higher socioeconomic status.

Two psychosocial factors could explain why the socioeconomic status of children affects their cortisol profile over time. According to Chen, Cohen, and Miller, children from this background reported greater perceptions of threats and more family or relational conflicts—two factors that cause emotional and mental distress in children. Remember that stressful situations results in elevated cortisol levels.

Exposure to community violence also triggers the production of cortisol. The study of Shakira Franco Suglia, John Staudenmayer, Sheldon Cohen, Rosalind J. Wright revealed that school-aged children who live in rough environments and witness violence in urban communities exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In studying an urban community-dwelling sample, the researchers also found out that children who scored higher on the stress symptoms had greater disruption in their cortisol production pattern. Furthermore, these children have higher levels of cortisol over the course of the day, particularly in the afternoon and the evening.

Children in stressful environment

Undeniably, the studies above suggest that certain environmental situation are stressful for children. They also suggest that there are external or environmental factors that induce stress and high cortisol levels in children.

Children in stressful environment are often exposed to poor household condition due to bad parenting, unfavourable learning environment due to poor relationship with teachers, rough community due to violence, and/or impoverished living conditions due to low socioeconomic status.

The most important phenomenon to consider is that these environmental factors or exposure to stressful environment result in prolonged or sustained high cortisol levels that last throughout the day and eventually, throughout the course of a week, month, or year—depending on the length of exposure to a particular environmental factor. High cortisol levels in children have been linked to several physical and mental conditions.

It is worth mentioning that these factors are relatively manageable. Stress and cortisol levels of children are controllable once they are removed from a stressful environment.

Further details of the study of Suor et al are in the article “Tracing differential pathways of risk: Associations among family adversity, cortisol, and cognitive functioning in childhood” published in 2015 in the journal Child Development. More details of the study of Davies et al are in the article “Adrenocortical underpinnings of children’s psychological reactivity to interparental conflict” published in 2008 in the journal Child Development.

Further details of the study of Lisonbee et al are in the article “Children’s cortisol and the quality of teacher-children relationship in childcare” published in 2015 in the journal Child Development. More details of the study of Chen, Cohen, and Miller are in the article “How low socioeconomic status affects 2-year hormonal trajectories in children” published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science. Further details of the study of Suglia et al are in the article “Posttraumatic stress symptoms related to community violence and children’s diurnal cortisol response in an urban community-dwelling sample” published in 2009 in the article International Journal of Behavioural Medicine.