Methods: Data were analyzed from a larger study on the influence of bio-psycho-social factors on early parenting processes in 102 expectant mothers and fathers from a large urban area. The My Exposure to Violence Scale (Buka & Selner-OHagen, 1997) assessed level of parents’ violence exposure during the previous year. Covariates included age, race, and baseline cortisol level. Social support was assessed using the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (Zimet & Farley, 1988). Salivary cortisol was collected before, during, and after a stressful simulated baby cry protocol (BCP). Linear regression was used to examine the impact of violence exposure and social support on cortisol responses during the BCP. PROCESS macro for SPSS was used to examine social support as a moderator of violence exposure on cortisol.
Results: Expectant mothers’ mean age was 25.75 years, and 27.19 for fathers. Thirty mothers and 30 fathers identified as African American; 25 mothers and 17 fathers were unemployed. The final regression model was significant at F(6, 102)=3.27, p=.01, and R2=.21. Greater violence exposure (B=2.38; SE=.71; p<.01) was associated with greater cortisol stress reactivity during the BCP, while social support was not directly related to cortisol reactivity. The violence exposure x social support interaction term was significant (B=-.37, SE=.12, p<.01); for parents with lower social support, greater violence exposure was associated with greater cortisol reactivity during the BCP.
Implications: Violence exposure is associated with heightened physiological stress responses, such as elevated cortisol. This is especially concerning among parents of infants and young children for whom the stress of parenting may also stimulate the physiological stress response, posing risks for emotion dysregulation and potential child maltreatment. These data increase our understanding of the risks associated with low social support at the biological level, for parents in high risk contexts (violence and poverty). Findings may inform the development of early parenting assessments and interventions to identify parents at risk for high parenting stress due to violence exposure and low social support. Interventions might target enhancement of social support in order to regulate parents’ biological stress responses.