As I was sitting in my office this morning listening to the news, I thought about the unusual stress that today’s children are exposed to. Though your children are born hard-wired to learn and filled with tremendous human potential, I am concerned that the demands of our modern culture may negatively affect both their cognitive and emotional development. It starts with the neuroscience behind how our children’s brains cope with stress.

Undeveloped brains and stress

The immature brain of childhood is extremely vulnerable to stress. This means that stress poses a great deal of risk for a child. Children under the age of six are particularly at risk, as their thinking capabilities are not fully developed. As a result, your child cannot separate events from feelings and self-concept. In fact, they are hampered in moderating their physical reactions, in choosing appropriate behavior in response to stressful events.

For example, modern children who express stress from divorce, abuse, incest, drugs, alcoholism, drive-by shootings, and/or emotional discord within their family unit, have difficulty putting aside these traumas to do other tasks, such as thinking and studying. The emotional insults children often face at school can impact their ability to both focus and concentrate. According to David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child, the stressed child feels restless and irritable and is unable to concentrate, but is not really sure what the trouble is.

Despite these limitations, your child may encounter daily situations and problems that are beyond his capacity to solve, which then leads to stress. On the other hand, his neuro-cognitive development can be optimized when he learns how to effectively cope with stress.

Coping with stress

Young children can deal with stress through regressive behaviors, to both reduce stress and repress vulnerability. For example, your child may isolate from stressful situations by bed wetting, nail biting, hair pulling, and by changes in sleeping and eating patterns. Your older child may show signs of aggressive behavior, shyness, general malaise, or emotional disabilities. In 2010, the American Psychological Association stated, “Common changes (due to stress) can include acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure, routinely expressing worries, complaining more than usual about school, crying, displaying surprising, fearful reactions, clinging to a parent or teacher, sleeping too much or too little or eating too much or too little.”

Thus, acting out may help your stressed child reduce his stress and repress his vulnerability. If your child is older, he may use more cognitive stress release strategies to verbally express his concerns. If your child experiences long-term stress exposure — for example, parental separation too early in life, poverty, death, divorce, or mental or physical abuse — he is at risk for developing unproductive or even destructive strategies to stress. Often, these strategies can become relatively intractable, as the sustained stress itself can actually alter impulse control and brain architecture. Moreover, a 2001 study shows that “stress-induced changes in neurobiology underlie the development of psychopathology in those who do develop psychiatric symptoms.” It follows, then, that children’s reactions to stress – rather than the actual stress events themselves – comprise the most significant and influential factor in his future behavior patterns.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at the stress that occurs when there is early separation between mother and child.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.