Abstract: This study evaluated continuity and change in maternal-child hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis attunement in early childhood. Participants were drawn from a prospective study of 1,292 mother-child dyads, which were racially diverse, predominantly low-income, and non-urban. Child focused stress tasks designed to elicit anger, fear, and frustration were administered during early infancy, later infancy, and toddlerhood. Mothers’ and children’s saliva samples (later assayed for cortisol) were collected before and after the tasks. The strength of mother-child adrenocortical attunement was conserved across infancy and toddlerhood. The magnitude of maternal-child adrenocortical attunement decreased in response to the child-focused stress tasks. Maternal sensitivity and the child’s task-related emotional reactivity moderated adrenocortical attunement across the task, with greater maternal sensitivity during a free-play, and lower levels of child emotional reactivity during the stress tasks, stabilizing attunement from pre- to post-task levels. The findings advance our understanding of individual differences in the social regulation of adrenocortical activity in early childhood.
Abstract: The psychobiology of stress involves two major components, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Research has revealed the association between behavior problems and the psychobiology of stress, yet findings are inconsistent and few studies have addressed the moderate correlations between behavior problems. This study examines the individual and interactive effects of HPA and ANS on child behavior problems while taking into account the comorbidity of externalizing and internalizing problems. Four saliva samples were collected from each participant in a community sample (N = 429; aged 11-12 years; 50.49 % male), which were assayed for cortisol (HPA) and alpha-amylase, sAA (ANS). Children’s behavior problems were assessed using parent-report and self-report versions of the Child Behavior Checklist. Latent variables were constructed to represent trait-like individual differences in cortisol and sAA. Low levels of HPA axis activity were associated with higher levels of both externalizing and internalizing problems, but only among children with low ANS arousal. The association between externalizing and internalizing problems diminished to non-significant after taking into account the influence of HPA axis activity and ANS arousal, which suggests that the psychobiology of stress explains a fair proportion of comorbidity of behavior problems. The findings support that interaction between HPA axis and ANS functioning has potential to clarify prior mixed findings and advance our understanding of the child behavior problems.