According a to a new study led by Daniel A. Hackman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychology, a person’s stress response is directly shaped by the way in which they were raised by their parents. There is an abundance of research focused on how various factors affect the psychosocial and psychological development of children. Studies have examined maternal depression, maltreatment, child abuse, domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and socioeconomic status, among other variables, to determine how each of these affects the outcome of children independently and together. However, until now, the effect of parental sensitivity and responsivity, irrespective of other factors, has not been examined in detail.
For his study, Hackman assessed caregiver warmth and responsivity in a sample of 55 children when they were 4 years old. When the children reached adolescence, they underwent stress response tests and were evaluated for stress reactivity. Hackman also evaluated all other contributing factors in order to see if these were responsible for the stress reactions of the children. But after he analyzed his data, Hackman discovered that caregiver warmth and responsivity were uniquely and independently predictive of stress reactivity. For example, among the children who had experienced trauma or abuse, Hackman was able to show that despite these vulnerabilities, those exposed to less warmth and less sensitivity when they were young were at greater risk for stress reactions than children with a history of trauma who had warmer, more sensitive caregivers.
The responsiveness of parents was particularly influential of stress reactivity, even in participants who experienced physical punishment from their caregivers. Additionally, Hackman found that mental health challenges of parents and environmental hazards, such as exposure to violence, drugs, and other negative life events, did not impact the effect of caregiver responsiveness or sensitivity. “Therefore, “Hackman added, “This study demonstrates in a novel and precise fashion that early childhood parental responsivity prospectively and independently predicts stress reactivity in adolescence.”
Hackman, D.A., Betancourt, L.M., Brodsky, N.L., Kobrin, L., Hurt, H., et al. (2013). Selective impact of early parental responsivity on adolescent stress reactivity. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058250
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