Stress isn’t just an adult issue; a 2003 study confirmed that even subtle forms of maltreatment have a impact on how children respond to stress.
Mothers who are emotionally unavailable (either due to depression or their use of withdrawal as a control tactic) are more likely to have children who demonstrate higher baseline levels of cortisol:
Infants’ hormonal responses were shown here to be re- active to subtle forms of parental maltreatment. Mothers who were emotionally unavailable (either due to depression or their use of withdrawal as a control tactic) were more likely to have children who demonstrated higher baseline levels of cortisol.
Mothers who report using physically harsh discipline are more likely to have children who are hyperreactive to stress:
These findings suggest that very early use of corporal punishment fosters heightened stress when the child is con- fronted with a novel and potentially frightening event—in this case, the presence of a stranger following the departure of the parent. Children’s hormonal reactivity in this setting may be seen as reflecting their vulnerability to unexpected, challenging, or novel life events.
Regardless of how an infant encounters a stressful situation, it’s the role of a supportive parent or caregiver to anticipate and respond to the child’s anxiety in a way that gives them a sense of security and models empathy; the parent as both mirror and soother, as opposed to a withdrawn or punitive parent.
In the best circumstances, parents allow children to confront such events in ways that facilitate recovery and “growth”; that is, young children become increasingly able to cope with an expanding world when they are socially supported by their parents in their response and recovery from stress-inducing events within that world.