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Interactive effects of early and recent exposure to stressful contexts on cortisol reactivity in middle childhood.

  • Author(s): Jaffee, Sara R
  • McFarquhar, Tara
  • Stevens, Suzanne
  • Ouellet-Morin, Isabelle
  • Melhuish, Edward
  • Belsky, Jay
  • et al.
Abstract

Background

Given mixed findings as to whether stressful experiences and relationships are associated with increases or decreases in children's cortisol reactivity, we tested whether a child's developmental history of risk exposure explained variation in cortisol reactivity to an experimentally induced task. We also tested whether the relationship between cortisol reactivity and children's internalizing and externalizing problems varied as a function of their developmental history of stressful experiences and relationships.

Method

Participants included 400 children (M = 9.99 years, SD = 0.74 years) from the Children's Experiences and Development Study. Early risk exposure was measured by children's experiences of harsh, nonresponsive parenting at 3 years. Recent risk exposure was measured by children's exposure to traumatic events in the past year. Children's cortisol reactivity was measured in response to a social provocation task and parents and teachers described children's internalizing and externalizing problems.

Results

The effect of recent exposure to traumatic events was partially dependent upon a child's early experiences of harsh, nonresponsive parenting: the more traumatic events children had recently experienced, the greater their cortisol reactivity if they had experienced lower (but not higher) levels of harsh, nonresponsive parenting at age 3. The lowest levels of cortisol reactivity were observed among children who had experienced the most traumatic events in the past year and higher (vs. lower) levels of harsh, nonresponsive parenting in early childhood. Among youth who experienced harsh, nonresponsive parent-child relationships in early childhood and later traumatic events, lower levels of cortisol reactivity were associated with higher levels of internalizing and externalizing problems.

Conclusions

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity to psychological stressors and the relationship between HPA axis reactivity and children's internalizing and externalizing problems vary as a function of a child's developmental history of exposure to stressful relationships and experiences.

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