Children of low socio-economic status (SES) and those who have experienced abuse tend to exhibit higher levels of cortisol and fewer social behaviors, according to a new study. Researchers at Leiden University, the University of Minnesota, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the Mt. Hope Family Center, collaborated on a study to determine the lasting effects of this dynamic in these children. “Several studies have shown that individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment show dysregulated cortisol levels,” said the team. “More specifically, low morning cortisol levels have been found in children who have been maltreated (including children who have lived in orphanages under deprived circumstances).”
In order to test their theory, the team collected morning and evening saliva samples from 125 children as they participated in a week long summer camp for under-privileged urban children. Nearly all of the children were from families who were on public assistance and more than half had experienced some form of abuse. The camp was held for two consecutive summers, which gave the team the opportunity to gauge the long-term effects of maltreatment. Counselors rated the behavior of the children at the conclusion of each camp week.
The results revealed a direct link between maltreatment, cortisol production and social behavior. “If children had been maltreated, then they showed higher levels of disruptive/ aggressive behavior,” said the researchers. “In turn, children with high levels of disruptive/aggressive behavior were more at risk for showing low levels of AM cortisol 1 year later.” They added that this link was present for other behavior as well. “For withdrawn behavior, we also found that maltreatment was significantly related to higher levels of withdrawn behavior at Time 1 and that Time 1 withdrawn behavior was significantly related to PM cortisol.” They concluded, “In the long run, children with altered HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) axis functioning (possibly because of a lack of social skills in peer interactions) may be at risk for future psychiatric problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, or antisocial behavior).”
Alink, L. R. A., Cicchetti, D., Kim, J., & Rogosch, F. A. (2011, August 8). Longitudinal Associations Among Child Maltreatment, Social Functioning, and Cortisol Regulation. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024892
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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