Methods: This study uses a sample of 318 parent-youth dyads who participated in an 8-day daily diary study focused on work, family, and health. Cortisol, a hormonal by product of the HPA system, was collected on 4 study days. Measures included child stress outside of the parent-child relationship (e.g., stress at school, with friends) as well as parent daily negative affect and parent cortisol (bedtime levels, daily slope). Multilevel models were used, where Level 1 captured the daily effect of child stress on parents’ daily outcomes capturing how deviations from the child’s own average of stress across days is associated with parent outcomes. Level 2 captured the between person effect of child stressors on parent outcomes, capturing how the average level of child stress across all 8 days was associated with parent outcomes. Moderation by parent/child gender were also tested via interaction terms at Level 1 and Level 2. Control variables include demographics (e.g., race, parent education), and cortisol specifications (e.g., time of cortisol sample, medication use) and type of day (weekday/weekend).
At the within-person level, on days where children experienced more stress than usual, their parents exhibited more negative affect (B=.10, p<.001). At the between-person level, higher levels of child stress on average across the 8 days were associated with higher levels of parent negative affect (B=.22, p<.01) and bedtime cortisol (B=.31, p <.05). These associations were not significant for cortisol slope. There was no evidence of moderation by parent or child gender.
Stress can have deleterious effects on health, yet little is known about the transmission of stress in families. Our results suggest that on days when children experience more stress than usual, parents experience higher negative affect. Furthermore, higher average levels of child stress may affect parent negative affect and the functioning of parents’ stress physiology, as indicated by the hormone cortisol. Interventions are needed that give parents tools to help disrupt the potential negative effects of child stress on parent health.