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Kids and Stress

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Sam Grocholski was adopted from Romania
(Deborah Grocholski)
Kids and Stress Slideshow
(Produced by Sasha Aslanian and Ariel Kitch)

Children who spent their early years in orphanages offer researchers a unique opportunity to see how chronic adversity primes the brain's stress response system. New research comparing adoptees to children raised in biological families, or those adopted early from foster care, gives some surprising results.

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At the University of Minnesota's Child Development Lab in Minneapolis, the kids are stressed out. But they're doing it willingly for the benefit of science.

They're giving speeches. Public speaking is a sure-fire way to see a person's stress system in action. And in case that doesn't work? They have to take a math test, too.

Sam Grocholski was adopted from a Romanian orphanage when he was four years old. Now he's 10. He stands at a podium in a University conference room giving a five-minute speech to two adults posing as a teacher and a school principal. In this pretend scenario, Sam's accused of stealing his best friend's lunch money and has to defend himself.

He's got a few points, and he makes them and then runs dry. He still has three minutes to fill. "You're not done yet. Keep going," the woman playing the role of principal instructs him.

"I'm trying to think of something!" says Sam, sounding a little desperate.

You know this feeling. Strangers are staring at you. Your mind goes blank. Your heart is beating. You're starting to sweat.

Dr. Megan Gunnar studies the neurobiology of stress. She's the mastermind behind Sam's speech exercise.

"Being evaluated in a social setting is very stressful," she says. "It activates stress biology because it threatens our social self. We like to look good, we like to be accepted by others."

Next door to where Sam is giving the speech, his mom Phyllis Hames watches him on a video monitor. Parents can step in if they think their child is getting too distressed. Sam's still smiling and doesn't look perturbed.

One of the researchers sitting with us, Bonny Donzella, has a more practiced eye. She points out his nervous energy. "So people will pound on the lectern and do crazy non-meaningful gestures. He's got a little of that going on."

Sam's mom agrees that the exercise is getting a little more stressful as the speech drags on and he's run out of things to say. She says he's a sociable little guy who loves to talk, but this speech has clearly taken him out of his element.

After he finishes, he has to take an oral math test, subtracting by 7s, beginning with 758. If he messes up, he has to start over.

While he's doing the math and giving the speech, Sam's brain fires off a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol goes into his blood stream, and traces of it shows up in saliva. So after his speech, Donzella says Sam will spit into a cup so his stress level can be measured.

"We'll see how stressed they were during the early part of the speech--the WAAAH! when you come in," says Donzella. Researchers will look to see how high cortisol levels shoot up and stay up.

The tests Sam is doing fire up three parts of his brain: the hippocampus, which deals with memory; the amygdala, which perceives threats; and the pre-frontal cortex, which is where he does his critical thinking.

Megan Gunnar, the lead researcher, says orphanage life keeps these parts of the brain revved up looking for threats.

"Chronic adversity will …begin to tone the system for defensive responding at lower thresholds. So that we react first, think later. Which of course is adaptive."

If you're growing up in a dangerous situation, it's smart to stay vigilant. But Gunnar calls the stress system a "big gun." Firing it too often has consequences.

"So if you have a child that's developing with a system that's beginning to be toned that way, then they go into school …and they're reacting, and being defensive, and being anxious and not paying attention, and having trouble playing well with other children because they perceive threats too easily and so on," says Gunnar.

Sam got out of the orphanage years ago, but Gunnar is curious to see if his early life affects the way he continues to sense and react to stressful events.

So international adoptees like Sam are compared to a control group of kids growing up with their biological families in Minnesota.

"What we found was no difference," says Gunnar.

No difference between the adoptees like Sam--the kids who had endured the most stress in early life, and the control group of kids raised in their biological families--the most protected kids. The speech and math tests stressed them both out.

But there was another group of kids included in the study. These kids were adopted not from orphanages, but from foster care abroad when they were less than a year old. They had had some stress early in life, but less than Sam.

"So the surprise in looking at these kids is that their stress biology was lowered. They looked buffered. They looked like they had had a stress inoculation effect," says Gunnar.

Gunnar's hypothesis is that a little stress helps temper the body's stress system. She wants to do more research and make sure the pattern holds true past puberty and see what having a less reactive stress system bodes for child development.

After decades of pioneering work on kids and stress, Gunnar's latest findings surprised her a bit. Once she mulled it over though, they seemed to fit. The stress system develops from use. If it's fired up too often, it develops a hair trigger. If it's never exercised, the child doesn't learn to cope.

She explains it this way. "If you never have a chance to manage anything challenging at all in your life until you're an adult, you're not really well-suited to manage being an adult." Gunnar says children need to learn how to manage small challenges and overcome some adversity with the support of parents and friends. On the other hand, too much stress "overwhelms the system. You begin to think of yourself as incapable and incompetent and the world is hostile and mean and so on, and you don't manage stress very well."

So one less thing for parents to feel guilty about. A little stress is OK. A little.

Comments

  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Esther Sylvester

    07/26/2014

    YE

    By Janet Tan

    From US, AB, 11/25/2008

    My girl is 10 years old. She had been sleeping alone since 7 years old. Now, suddenly she dare not sleep alone

    By David Butler

    From Alexandria, MN, 11/16/2008

    This story struck me hard, I have been reading about the Cortisol reactions and it's relation to mechanorecepror firing of the spinal vertebral joints which trigger responses in the sympathetic chain of the autonomic nervous system which leads to an increase in our bodies Allostatic load and affects our bodies immune response all of which can be altered and improved with Chiropractic adjustments to the vertebra according to published research from Australia, if you would like to look in to this for future stories let me know and I'll find the references to the studies.
    I enjoy listening to your show because of the variety of stories like this one.

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