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Environment Past and Present

How experience with stress influences future behavior.


Last week, I wrote about how the environment shapes what we do.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin, who called attention to situational influences on our behavior, wanted us to know that the influence of environment is, in fact, two-fold.

“The same factors that are critical for the momentary situation,” Lewin said, “are also characteristic of the total milieu of the child over longer periods of his life.” (Italics are mine.)

I thought of Lewin when listening to ethnic studies scholar Jeff Duncan-Andrade describe the cumulative effects of stress on young people.

“What do children who’ve experienced chronic stress do in your classroom?” Jeff asked a group of experienced teachers.

“Go to the bathroom!”

“Right,” said Jeff. “They escape. They look for ways out.”

This conversation took place last week. But in 1931, decades before neuroscientific research on chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response and its enduring effects on the brain, Lewin wrote: “Overly harsh or severe surroundings may lead to the child’s encapsulating or insulating himself from the environment.”

What Lewin intuited, and neuroscience now confirms, is that the environment not only matters in the moment, but also shapes how we behave in the future.

Figure from McEwen (2017)

What happens to self-control when young people experience arguments between their parents, say, or a friend moving away? Longitudinal research shows that events like these predict feeling anxious and overwhelmed, which in turn predicts lapses in self-control.   

What does this mean for how we respond?

Don’t assume you know what’s worrying the young people you care about.

Do ask. Jeff Andrade suggests making a two-column chart. List current worries on the left and available resources on the right. I suggest you make your own list first and then invite the young people in your life to do the same. Then talk. And listen.

Sharing concerns isn’t whining. It’s honesty. And listening isn’t coddling. It’s empathy.

With grit and gratitude,