What is the HPA Axis and Why It Is Important to Early Childhood?

Babies look so sweet and helpless. People used to think they were just little blobs of humanity who really weren’t impacted much by the world around them. How wrong those beliefs are turning out to be!

Take a look at the book, How Children Succeed 

This powerful book by Paul Tough is one I recommend for parents. Tough has done some serious research to determine what contributes to children’s success later in life.

Some of his comments (xv, xvi): “This book is about an idea, one that is growing clearer and gathering momentum in classrooms and clinics and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world.

“According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach the skills.… The argument they [the researchers] are piecing together has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.”

So much of the recent neuroscience discoveries back up his research and comments.

He says (xxiv): “Until recently, though, there has never been a serious attempt to use the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of childhood, to trace, through experiment and analysis, how the experiences of our early years connect to outcomes in adulthood. That is changing, with the efforts of this new generation of researchers.

“The premise behind the work is simple, if not radical. We haven’t managed to solve these problems because we have been looking for solutions in the wrong places. If we want to improve the odds for children in general, and for poor children in particular, we need to approach childhood anew, to start over some fundamental questions about how parents affect their children; how human skills developed; how character is formed.

He describes an important stress response system called the HPA axis, which stands for the connections between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands.

There is a powerful connection among these three parts of the brain and nervous system. The degrees to which there is hyper-arousal and activation of the HPA axis during childhood has long-lasting effects on our children, especially later in their lives.

“Most of our stress today comes from mental processes, from worrying about things. The HPA axis is not designed to handle that kind of stress… Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects: physiological, psychological, and neurological. The tricky thing about this process, though, is that it’s not actually the stress itself that messes us up. It’s the body’s reaction to the stress.

“.… According to Bruce McEwen, the process of managing stress, which he labeled allostasis, is what creates wear and tear on the body. If the body’s stress-management systems are overworked they eventually break down under the strain. McEwen called this gradual process allostatic load, and he says that you can observe its destructive effects throughout the body.” [p. 12]

“…children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.

“When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet. And in fact, when kindergarten teachers are surveyed about their students, they say that the biggest problem they face is not children who don’t know their letters and numbers; it is kids who don’t know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after a provocation.

“In one national survey, 46% of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, such as kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Some of the effects of stress on the prefrontal cortex can best be categorized as emotional, or psychological: anxiety and depression of all kinds. “ [pp. 18-19]

So what are some conclusions we can make?

Tough suggests“Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy, but it is rooted in cold hard science. [page 28]

“The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say it is biochemical.” 

Once again, it comes down to the power of a loving, nurturing relationship, starting from infancy on and, parenthetically, even in the womb.

Please give yourself credit if you are taking the time to be an intentional parent who is providing a safe, loving, predictable environment where you are interested and attuned.

Remember not to spend too much time on your cell phones — it really stresses kids out if they can’t connect with you!

If anyone ever questioned you about what you are doing or why, you can tell them you are helping your children develop a strong HPA axis.  Who can argue with that?

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How emotionally stressful would you say your own childhood was? If there was a lot of stress, where did it come from? If there wasn’t, how did your parents provide a safe and protective environment for you? How do you think what happened to you in your childhood has played out in your life?
  2. How stressful do you think the environment is that your children are growing up in?
  3. What are some of the ways you are or can reduce their stress by being consistently available, interested, supportive and attuned?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Image source: http://www.childsleepscience-1.png