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Poverty and psychological development

Chronic poverty in a child's early years can have a profound impact on their later development
Chronic poverty in a child's early years can have a profound impact on their later development

New research suggests that experiences of poverty as a child could have an even more profound effect than was previously thought.

It has long been recognised that lack of educational opportunities at a young age can severely hamper children’s chances in later life. Equally, malnutrition can stunt growth and result in a whole range of health problems that persist into adulthood. However, new research suggests that stressful environments can also have a profound impact on children’s emotional and psychological development.

This research suggests that stress in a child’s first two or three years of life creates a toxic environment, which can negatively affect the way their brains develop. The paper, titled “Biological embedding of early childhood adversity: Toxic stress and the vicious cycle of poverty in South Africa”, suggests that negative early experiences often lead to lower socioeconomic status and even affect physical health in later life. If correct, these findings could have major policy implications for both governments and NGOs.

The cycle of poverty

The author of the recent research, Barak Morgan, tells IRIN news how important early childhood is. He stresses that in the first few years children’s brains are very sensitive to environmental stimuli. However, after this stage their minds enter a period of resilience, which makes it more difficult to change the direction of development. It is, therefore, important to ensure that earlier experiences create positive development pathways since these will help shape people’s whole lives.

Morgan goes on to say that one of the major drivers of this “toxic stress” is chronic poverty and the strains it places on relationships between parents and children. Building on earlier research, he suggests this is often because poor parents struggle to provide the nurturing environment that children need. These means that poor children are at risk of being trapped in a cycle of poverty, as their stressful first years hamper opportunities later in life.

Policy implications

The impact of this research could completely reshape the way that organisations approach children’s development. Up until now action to help children in these early years has been limited. However, this paper suggests that investment to ensure positive experiences at this young age would have major long-term benefits for individuals and society. Not only would it lead to happy lives, it could also help children break from the cycle of poverty and contribute to broader economic goals.

However, Lawrence Aber, a psychologist from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, stresses that this shouldn’t be taken to mean that children from poor backgrounds are irreversibly damaged. Even at a young age, he tells IRIN, people are enormously resilient and can be helped to bounce back from negative early experiences. This research should, therefore, create the impetus for more holistic support that offers targeted assistance at all ages.

SOS Children works with communities to raise children out of poverty. By helping families achieve a sustainable livelihood, we create better conditions for children growing up. Find out more about our community work.

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