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How Stress Affects Brain Development in Students

Stress is a condition in which an individual experiences challenges to physical or emotional well-being that overwhelm their coping capacity. While some experience with manageable stress is important for healthy development, prolonged, uninterrupted, overwhelming stress can have toxic effects. This type of toxic stress is often associated with childhood abuse and neglect.


photo credit: miguelavg via photopin cc

According to an article on the Ready Nation website, (sponsored by America’s Promise and Colin Powell), in the early years of life when the brain is developing rapidly it is particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Toxic early life stress (ELS) may induce persistent hyper- sensitivity to stressors and sensitization of neural circuits and other neurotransmitter systems which process threat information. These neurobiological sequelae of ELS may promote the development of short and long-term behavioural and emotional problems that may persist and increase the risk for psychopathology and physical health disorders into adulthood.

In laymen’s terms, there are three kinds of stress that kids experience. The first two represent stress that are typical and that can be overcome with healthy responses. The third, however, is chronic and toxic stress. It results from an on-going negative, destructive and unhealthy environment in a home. It will affect a student’s grades, attitudes and ultimately their performance.

Have You Noticed?

I’d like to hear from you. One observation I am making week after week is the level of stress that students experience and how little it takes to overwhelm them.  In other words, I believe students are more “stressed out” than at any time since I began working with students (in 1979), and it takes less and less to really stress them out—making a poor grade, breaking up with a boyfriend, not winning a soccer game, scoring low on a test, etc. None of these experiences are fun, but when compared to the stress kids faced in history, they pale in comparison.

If I am accurate in this observation, let me offer some reasons why this might be:

  1. We have not developed emotionally strong kids. Instead of learning to resolve conflict in relationships and read body language by interacting with various generations, we put them in front of a screen that requires little to no emotional intelligence.
  2. We have medicated their problems. Whether it’s physical pain or not getting what they want, we tend to provide a band aid rather than a cure. We take them shopping, or give them pain relievers—and naturally so. Unfortunately, they haven’t learn to live with pain.
  3. We nurture too much. While I totally understand the tendency to nurture (I am a dad), I think we have over-done it, leaving them without the tools they need to navigate life’s hardships. In the past, parents took pride in giving their children everything they needed; today, parents take pride in giving them everything they want.

Unfortunately, what kids want is what we all naturally gravitate toward—comfort, pleasure and entertainment. I want that just like anyone else does. However, my greatest seasons of growth were moments I did not enjoy, moments that weren’t pleasurable.

Here’s my challenge. Let’s be leaders who are intentional about building our strong and robust emotions into our students. This means having conversations, creating experiences and exposing them to people who will equip them, not merely medicate their problems.

Your thoughts?


  1. WantingtoleadinChrist on October 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

    I think it’s a Passion Issue…Priority Issue….Heart Issue.
    I’ve been working with a group, and some are as you said stressed out. If they do not have these tools to understand others and affect the whole by being part of a group. How then do you begin to teach or guide them to this emotional maturity, where they understand that; what they do impacts others.
    They are so busy doing homework on Sunday that they say they don’t have time to come to Youth Group but you know as much as I do, if they had the heart for Youth Group, they would have made time. Its a heart issue. How then do you implement something, when there is no passion.

    • Tim Elmore on October 23, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      Great insight…and great questions! Keep leading them well, with words and example, and the heart will follow.

  2. Sirallen on October 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Wonderful…thats a very realistic way of putting it

    • Tim Elmore on October 23, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Brian Musser on December 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I know I’m a little behind on this article. I’m catching up on some of my light reading as the Winter break rolls in. I completely agree with your assessment. Students get stressed out often and easily. I agree that those three reasons are very strong contributing factors.
    As I was reading the article I think there may be one more: lack of values. We educate our students to determine their own values which on some levels is a great thing if done properly but could actually be a huge stressor if not left undone.
    Using one of your examples “losing a soccer game” is going to be stressful but if you know where that soccer game fits into an overall value system the stress can be handled easily. Now some have been taught the value of winning and losing and been given a value system to place that soccer game in. Depending on their maturity others have developed their own value system and know where in their world that winning and losing the soccer game fits. But for many they have neither been given a value system nor have spent the effort required to develop it themselves so they are left with the task of “on the spot” determining the meaning and value of the soccer game while their emotions of losing are clouding their vision. This prohibits them from being able to properly handle the stress because they are at the moment unable to determine how important the stress should be.

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How Stress Affects Brain Development in Students