Paul Tough on Stress and Children’s Success

Recently, author Paul Tough was the Saint Vincent College Threshold Series lecturer, as the opening event  in celebration of the Fred Rogers Center’s 10th anniversary. Tough’s recent book, “How Children Succeed,” explains the brain science behind the toxic effects of long-term stress on young children and how to prevent and undo the harm it produces.

Fred Rogers knew the importance of a caring adult in the life of each child. In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he created a television experience as close as possible to a personal interaction with each viewer. As a child of the late 60s and 70s, I can still remember him singing “You are my friend. You are special.”

It took neuroscience about 40 years to catch up with Fred Rogers and begin to explain how a caring adult can affect a child’s stress response at the biochemical level. That science is featured in Tough’s book. His work has fueled a national conversation about how to help children and adolescents succeed by building their capacities for perseverance and self-control.

His work has fueled a national conversation about how to help children and adolescents succeed by building their capacities for perseverance and self-control.

A related, important thread in the book addresses how severe stress affects very young children and how even struggling parents can help reduce it. In short, severe, extended stress on children in the earliest years of life overloads the body’s stress-response systems. When the system is persistently overwhelmed, people experience long-lasting negative effects on their mental and physical health. Educators may see the results when children struggle to concentrate, follow directions, and rebound from setbacks.

Tough notes that simply growing up in a low-income family does not cause this kind of damaging stress. Trauma, however, does. Repeated incidents of violence in the home, physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse, and parents struggling with mental illness, alcoholism, or drug abuse are all detrimental. Children and adults at all income levels have often experienced one or more of these stressors. However, the poorest families are more likely to experience many of these traumas and less likely to have resources to buffer themselves from the results.

Recent research offers hope and examples of ways to interrupt the stress cycle among the most disadvantaged. As Tough writes, “It turns out there is a particularly effective antidote to the effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents.… The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”

In a pioneering study, Cornell scientist Gary Evans found that as children’s cumulative risk factors increased, their allostatic load—a red flag for stress— did not rise unless their mothers were unusually unresponsive.

What happens when parents don’t know how to respond to their children or are themselves so stressed from life’s challenges they become unresponsive? What if their own upbringing didn’t give them the parenting skills they need to protect their children from damaging stress? A variety of interventions have been developed to help parents overcome their own histories of trauma and change their parenting styles to promote their children’s security and health. Tough cites an intensive, well-researched example of Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) developed by San Francisco child psychologist Alicia Lieberman. Similar, but briefer and less intensive, interventions for foster parents have also shown success.

The national conversation has yet to take on reducing early stress as deeply as it has tackled the challenge of helping children develop a particular combination of focus and delayed gratification called grit. (In the book, Tough highlights a group called OneGoal and their efforts to help disadvantaged teens become first-generation college graduates.) However, in October, the New York Times Fixes blog noted that a Connecticut CPP-based program, Child First, has been invited to help 24 more states implement its model.

In the book, Tough says the research he explored influenced his thinking about parenting when his older son, Ellington, was an infant. Unlike the rats in some of the studies Tough observed, “I didn’t lick my son. I didn’t even groom him much, to be honest,” Tough wrote, but he did take extra care to comfort Ellington, especially after a tantrum or a bad scare. During his talk, Tough told the crowd he is a fan of Fred Rogers’music and has been sharing it with Ellington.

Tough’s son and my own child are close in age, and we enjoy Fred Rogers’ music, too. In fact, one of our favorite songs is “Brave and Strong” from the episode of the same title. I hope that as my son grows, he will take the secure base we’ve built together and carry it within himself as he explores the world, takes on new challenges, and gets up again and again from life’s tumbles.

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