Stress experienced early in life exerts a powerful, lasting influence on development. Converging empirical findings show that stressful experiences become deeply embedded in the child's neurobiology, with an astonishing range of long-term effects on cognition, emotion, and behavior. In contrast with the prevailing view that such effects are the maladaptive outcomes of 'toxic' stress, adaptive models regard them as manifestations of evolved developmental plasticity. In this paper, I offer a brief introduction to adaptive models of early stress and human behavioral development, with emphasis on recent theoretical contributions and emerging concepts in the field. I begin by contrasting dysregulation models of early stress with their adaptive counterparts; I then introduce life history theory as a unifying framework, and review recent work on predictive adaptive responses (PARs) in human life history development. In particular, I discuss the distinction between forecasting the future state of the environment (external prediction) and forecasting the future state of the organism (internal prediction). Next, I present the adaptive calibration model, an integrative model of individual differences in stress responsivity based on life history concepts. I conclude by examining how maternal-fetal conflict may shape the physiology of prenatal stress and its adaptive and maladaptive effects on postnatal development. In total, I aim to show how theoretical work from evolutionary biology is reshaping the way we think about the role of stress in human development, and provide researchers with an up-to-date conceptual map of this fascinating and rapidly evolving field.
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