Abstract: Daily Child Stressors Predict Parent Negative Affect and Cortisol (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Daily Child Stressors Predict Parent Negative Affect and Cortisol

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Ahwatukee A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Lippold, PhD, Associate Professor, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Melissa Jenkins, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Katherine Ehrlich, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The University of Georgia
Soomi Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Florida
Kacey Wyman, Research Assistant- MSW student, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
David Almeida, PhD, Professor, Penn State
Background and Purpose: Studies have found that adults and children who experience high daily stress are at increased risk for poor health outcomes. Yet, little is known about how stress—and the effects of stress—are transmitted in families. Family systems theory posits that stress experienced by one family member may have implications not only for the person experiencing the stress, but may cross over to affect other members of the family as well. Much of the research on the transmission of stress in families has examined how the effects of stressors cross over within marital couples or how parent stressors affect child well-being. Little is known about how daily child stressors affect parent well-being, and whether daily child stressors can cross over to affect parents’ physiology and affect. In this paper, we build on prior research to test whether child daily stressors are associated with parent stress-related physiology (as assessed by the stress-related hormone cortisol) and parent negative affect. We also examine whether these linkages differ based on parent or child gender.

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.