Stress in Childhood Alters the Brain's Reward Systems

Every child's childhood should be sacred and free from all kinds of suffering. However, this isn't always possible. In fact, early stress-dominated experiences are the cause of many future problems, such as addictions.
Stress in Childhood Alters the Brain's Reward Systems
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 31 March, 2024

No one is oblivious to the impact of stress, including children. Obviously, we’d love for every child to be immune to any adverse or challenging experience. However, problems, anguish, and even anxiety make up normal dimensions that every child has to face at some point in their lives. They form part of their psychosocial growth.

By this, we mean that there are experiences that, although challenging, are part of everyday life in childhood. One example may be dealing with bad grades, problems with a classmate at school, or even managing jealousy between siblings. These dynamics generate common obstacles that every child has to handle.

However, something that no person should have to experience is the feeling of physical and/or emotional threat. In fact, an early experience of the shadow of heartbreak, loneliness, or violence in any form is something that goes inherently against nature. But, these things happen and there are infinite ways in which childhood is violated. This leaves deep scars.

When stress becomes overwhelming in children, effects develop at the neurological level.

Illuminated child's brain symbolizing stress in childhood
Stress in childhood increases the risk of developing mood disorders in later life.

Childhood stress and reward processing

The fact that a child feels stressed at any given time is part of everyday life. As adults, if we can offer them strategies to handle these moments of difficulty, fear, or frustration, they’ll be able to deal with similar situations more successfully in the future. That said, problems occur when children are exposed to events of chronic stress.

Indeed, persistent stress in childhood has serious effects on the physical and mental health of every child. Personal scenarios like growing up in a situation of abandonment, emotional deprivation, or as a victim of abuse alter brain development. In this regard, Rockefeller University, in New York (USA), conducted research that highlighted the effect of stress on the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus.

These regions facilitate processes such as emotional regulation and good cognitive skills like attention, reflection, and problem-solving. A recent investigation has provided more timely and highly relevant information. It claims that stress in childhood alters brain reward systems. This feature has a serious effect in many areas.

A common risk in children who’ve suffered situations of high chronic stress is the development of addictive behaviors.

Changes in motivation

A key dimension to developing potential is motivation. We set ourselves goals to work for, dream of goals that excite us, and devise strategies to overcome difficulties. However, the aforementioned work, which was conducted in collaboration with various universities such as Princeton and Pittsburgh (USA), highlights how stress in childhood reduces motivated behavior.

These adverse experiences alter brain neurochemistry and, with it, the optimal development of certain regions.

Linked to brain reward systems, the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area also orchestrate our goal-directed behavior. Growing up in a dysfunctional family can cause this characteristic to be altered.

Increased risk of mood disorders

Reward circuits mature throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, it’s not until the age of 20 or 21 that this maturation ends. This is at the same time as the prefrontal areas mature. However, childhood stress disrupts this optimal development. It has significant effects on the psycho-emotional level.

In these instances, not only is the child’s motivated behavior reduced, but their feelings of pleasure are also altered. Consequently, there comes a time when it’s difficult for them to enjoy experiences that are usually rewarding for everyone else. Hobbies don’t last long, they find it difficult to maintain interest in almost any field, and their objectives or projects cease to be exciting after only a few days.

In addition, their social relationships come and go according to needs, not affection. This is because it isn’t easy for them to develop rewarding emotional bonds, as they constantly feel fearful and uncertain. They also feel disinterested. These alterations in the brain reward systems and the difficulty to enjoy or feel motivated frequently occur alongside anxiety and depression disorders.

Increased risk of addictions

The reward system is meant to make it easier for us to repeat behaviors or strategies for which we get reinforcement. We carry them out because these actions offer us a benefit, well-being, or feelings of pleasure, thanks to dopamine. Fortunately, we now better understand how and why stress in childhood increases the risk that these children will show some form of addiction in the future.

People who’ve suffered adversities in childhood show less regulation of impulses and capacity for reflection. Added to this is the need to experience new and intense sensations. Moreover, these individuals’ ability to feel pleasure is below the average threshold.

This causes them to seek out high-impact situations that offer them a higher peak of dopamine reinforcement. For example, substance abuse offers the experience of ‘feeling something’, by way of intense but brief feelings of well-being. It also appeases their stress and anxiety. Indeed, not having developed functional coping skills to alleviate discomfort increases the risk of resorting to addictions.

Psychologist with girl working stress in childhood
Early exposure to stressful events requires therapeutic intervention and social support for the child or adolescent.

What can be done?

There are many young people who show this type of behavioral pattern. A stressful childhood often triggers low motivation, anxiety disorders, depression, and behavioral or substance addictions. What can be done?

As a matter of fact, protecting children should be an essential pillar in every community and advanced society. Detecting the dysfunctional family or the neglected or abused child is something that must be established in the school as a protocol. However, if these situations have already happened and an adolescent or young adult is already experiencing behavioral and mental health problems, we must act.

The sooner we intervene, the sooner we can prevent other more serious circumstances from happening. Psychological and social support, added to family counseling, can help in these cases. It’s also worth remembering the words of the French neurologist and ethologist, Boris Cyrulnik. He claimed that no child is doomed by their past. In fact, he stated, “A person should never be determined by his or her trauma”. Change is always possible, and happiness is a reality that every person deserves.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Hanson, J. L., Williams, A. V., Bangasser, D. A., & Peña, C. J. (2021). Impact of Early Life Stress on Reward Circuit Function and Regulation. Frontiers in psychiatry12, 744690.
  • McEwen B. S. (2011). Effects of stress on the developing brain. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science2011, 14.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.