articles by tony

Reducing Stress On Our Children Improves Their Health

Tony Biglan
Child Development, Physical Health

In addition to helping families and schools create environments where children eat nutritious food, get lots of exercise, limit screen time, and get plenty of sleep, there’s another not-so-obvious way we can protect our children’s health: reduce their stress. I found out that there are direct and powerful effects of stress in childhood that lead to early deaths in adulthood due to cardiovascular disease.

What do I mean by stress? That’s a term that might not jive well with our classic vision of the carefree lifestyle of a kid. So, what do they have to stress about?

review of multiple studies on the relationship between poverty and health found that children raised in poverty were more likely to die due to heart disease, stroke, and a variety of other diseases. Studies have also shown that the effects of childhood poverty on death due to heart disease persist even when the person escapes poverty as an adult.

Greg Miller and his colleagues explored the reasons why poverty in childhood would affect adult mortality. One reason seems to be that poverty stresses families in ways that lead to conflict among family members. Frequent arguments and harsh punishments permanently alter people’s stress reactions in ways that lead to inflammatory processes that compromise health.

However, Miller and his colleagues also found that if a person was raised in poverty there was one factor that eliminated the effect of poverty: having had a nurturing mother. Why would that be? Probably because such mothers don’t punish and criticize and because they comfort us and protect us, even when other parts of our lives may be difficult.

If you go to Greg’s website, you will find a treasure trove of studies on this issue. His work makes clear that we are harming the lives of children whom we let live in poverty or harsh family conditions.

In my book The Nurture Effect, I describe family interventions that reduce stressful interactions among family members. These interventions prevent children from developing numerous problems, including antisocial behavior, drug abuse, and depression. However, there are few studies that have tested their effects directly on health outcomes. An exception is a study by Gene Brody, Greg Miller, and colleagues, which showed that a family-oriented psychosocial intervention reduced inflammation in low-SES African American youth. Given the efficacy of family interventions for reducing stressful interactions, I predict that more research will show the benefit of these interventions for improving health.

If you’re a practitioner working on improving health the evidence suggests that you will foster children’s health by helping families and schools become more nurturing. The many family and school interventions that I describe in my book do exactly that.

Finally, the evidence of the effects of poverty and family stress implies that we can also help to improve health by creating, testing, and promoting policies designed to reduce poverty. Examples of such policies include the Earned Income Tax Credit, indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and subsidies for housing.

In short, we can enhance the health and wellbeing of our young people by doing everything we can to ensure that they live in nurturing families, go to nurturing schools, and live in communities that are dedicated to the wellbeing of everyone.

This article originally appeared on

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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