For a long time, stress has incorrectly been assumed to predominantly manifest in adults. Many investigators have however recently turned to the incidence of stress in children [1–10]. Sandberg defined childhood stress as ‘any intrusion into the children’s normal physical or psychosocial life experiences that acutely or chronically unbalances their physiological or psychological equilibrium, threatens security or safety, or distorts their physical or psychological growth or development’ . In this definition, three stress components can be distinguished: 1) the environmental sources of stress or so-called ‘stressors’ (e.g. negative life events or more chronic adversities in the children’s school-, family- or inter-personal environment), 2) the psychological response given to these stressors (e.g. emotions), and 3) the biological stress response provoked by stressor exposure (e.g. the hormonal stress response) [12, 13]. This paper focusses on childhood stressor exposure; more specifically on the occurrence of negative life events and adversities of familial and social nature.
In particular chronic exposure to adverse, stressful situations may affect children’s behaviour and personality development and may have consequences on both their physiological and psychological health, with effects potentially persisting into adolescence and adulthood (e.g. depression, affective disorders, cardiovascular or auto-immune diseases, psychosomatic complaints, substance abuse) [14–20]. While some children may be relatively shielded from adversities, others may be exposed to a multiplicity of successive hardships or life-course-transitions resulting in cumulative stress .
The most obvious demographic change in Western Europe are the increased divorce rates, which may impact on the children’s everyday life through, e.g., a changing family structure . As the family environment may affect the social, emotional and physical health of children, it should be considered an important factor in the child’s well-being [23, 24]. Moreover, stressors from familial origin may not be isolated events, but cluster together or give rise to other unfavourable events (e.g. parental divorce may lead to organizational changes, decreased economic resources and parental strains), all together highlighting the importance of considering the early family and social environment in childhood stress research.
Despite the importance of recording/monitoring childhood adversities, there is a lack of large-scale, international research on the prevalence of negative life events and familial and social conditions which may constitute potential childhood adversity. Moreover, the majority of previous stress research has focused on rare traumatic events without considering familial and social conditions. Therefore, this study examines the prevalence of (1) negative life events (NLE) and (2) familial and social adversities (FSA) in a large population of European pre- and primary-school children (4–11 years old) cross-nationally, by investigating the following research questions: (1) Is the prevalence of adversity in pre- and primary-school children equally distributed over region, age and sex group [25, 26] ? (2) Can co-occurence and associations between adversities be demonstrated in this young childhood population (e.g. do certain adversities lead to other adversities or tend to co-occur) ?