Impact of Toxic Stress on Self-Regulation: Implications for ACF Programs

Toxic stress, defined as repeated activation of the body’s stress-response system in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support, is believed to disrupt developing brain architecture in children and increase their risk of developing stress-related diseases and impairment in adulthood.

Toxic stress may include a broad range of adverse experiences such as living in extreme poverty, chronic neglect, severe maternal depression, parental substance abuse, and household chaos, not only recurrent physical or emotional abuse. An important mechanism by which toxic stress may lead to negative long-term outcomes is through impaired self-regulation abilities.

Although there is a growing evidence-based for self-regulation interventions in early childhood, much less is known about effective interventions during adolescence when there is another significant growth spurt in areas of the brain that regulate emotional expression, the ability to control impulses, and delay gratification. This research suggests a clear need for services, programs and policies that aim to reduce the risk of negative outcomes in adulthood by preventing the adverse experiences in the first place or by intervening to weaken the link between adverse experiences and disruption of the stress-response system.

This project will:

  • Thoroughly describe research on the impact of toxic stress on the development of self-regulation skills and capacity from early childhood though young adulthood.
  • Review and describe the effectiveness of interventions to promote self-control for universal and targeted populations from early childhood through young adulthood.
  • Explore the implications of this research for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) programs that serve universal populations — such as Head Start, child care (including school-age children), teen pregnancy prevention and healthy relationship programs in schools, subsidized employment and job training for youth who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, transitional living — and for ACF programs that serve targeted populations (child welfare, runaway and homeless youth, home visiting programs that serve adolescent parents).