One method for measuring reactivity to stress is to assess the level of autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning. In a recent study, Lisa M. Diamond of the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah used skin conductance (SCL) to measure ANS among 110 children 14 years old. The purpose of her experiment was to determine if teens’ reactions to stress were influenced by their own predisposition or by their environments. Specifically, Diamond wanted to find out if boys and girls differed in how they handled stressful situations based on their baseline ANS and if the environments in which the teens lived, single-parent or dual-parent households and parents with internalizing or externalizing behaviors, would affect the way the teens reacted. Previous research has shown that negative environments negatively affect children who are sensitive to stress. These same children have also been shown to react positively to positive environments. To clarify if the outcomes realized in past studies were the result of the children’s sensitivity, the result of the environment alone, or a combination of both, Diamond evaluated all of these factors.
For 10 days, the teens and their mothers answered questions and recorded their daily activities in a diary. The adolescents were examined for ANS levels at the beginning of the study and several times throughout. Diamond and her colleagues evaluated how the mothers and teens responded emotionally and relationally based on their diary entries. The team found that, consistent with previous findings, the reactivity of the children was distinctly gender driven. Overall, children who were initially sensitive to stress were more likely to be negatively influenced by negative environments such as their mother’s externalizing behaviors. They also realized that this risk was higher still for teens who had one-parent households than for those living with two parents. The researchers also found significant differences between how boys reacted to the mother’s emotional processing and affect and how the girls reacted. Diamond added, “The present research provides strong support for the notion that individual differences in youths’ ANS functioning moderate their sensitivity to family environment characteristics.” She also emphasized that these factors influence the psychological health and well-being of boys and girls differently and those unique relationships should be considered during family interventions.
Diamond, L. M., Fagundes, C. P., & Cribbet, M. R. (2012, January 23). Individual Differences in Adolescents’ Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Functioning Moderate Associations Between Family Environment and Psychosocial Adjustment. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026901
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