Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Interparental aggression and children's adrenocortical reactivity: Testing an evolutionary model of allostatic load

  • Patrick T. Davies (a1), Melissa L. Sturge-Apple (a1) and Dante Cicchetti (a1) (a2)

Guided by an evolutionary model of allostatic load, this study examined the hypothesis that the association between interparental aggression and subsequent changes in children's cortisol reactivity to interparental conflict is moderated by their temperamental dispositions. Participants of the multimethod, longitudinal study included 201 2-year-old toddlers and their mothers. These children experienced elevated levels of aggression between parents. Consistent with the theory, the results indicated that interparental aggression predicted greater cortisol reactivity over a 1-year period for children who exhibited high levels of temperamental inhibition and vigilance. Conversely, for children with bold, aggressive temperamental characteristics, interparental aggression was marginally associated with diminished cortisol reactivity. Further underscoring its implications for allostatic load, increasing cortisol reactivity over the one year span was related to concomitant increases in internalizing symptoms but decreases in attention and hyperactivity difficulties. In supporting the evolutionary conceptualization, these results further supported the relative developmental advantages and costs associated with escalating and dampened cortisol reactivity to interparental conflict.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Patrick Davies, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627; E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

D. Cicchetti , & E. F Walker . (2001). Stress and development: Biological and psychological consequences. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 413418.

K. M. David , & B. C Murphy . (2007). Interparental conflict and preschoolers' peer relations: The moderating roles of temperament and gender. Social Development, 16, 123.

P. T. Davies , M. L. Sturge-Apple , D. Cicchetti , & E. M Cummings . (2007). The role of child adrenocortical functioning in pathways between interparental conflict and child maladjustment. Developmental Psychology, 43, 918930.

P. T. Davies , M. L. Sturge-Apple , D. Cicchetti , & E. M Cummings . (2008). Adrenocortical underpinnings of children's psychological reactivity to interparental conflict. Child Development, 79, 16931706.

P. T. Davies , M. L. Sturge-Apple , D. Cicchetti , L. G. Manning , & E Zale . (2009). Children's patterns of emotional reactivity to conflict as explanatory mechanisms in links between interpartner aggression and child physiological functioning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 13841391.

P. T. Davies , & M Windle . (2001). Interparental discord and adolescent adjustment trajectories: The potentiating and protective role of intrapersonal attributes. Child Development, 72, 11631178.

S. S. Dickerson , & M. E Kemeny . (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 355391.

B. J. Ellis , & W. T Boyce . (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 183187.

J. W. Fantuzzo , R. Boruch , A. Beriama , M. Atkins , & S Marcus . (1997). Domestic violence and children: Prevalence and risk in five major U.S. cities. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 116122.

B. L. Ganzel , P. A. Morris , & E Wethington . (2010). Allostasis and the human brain: Integrating models of stress from the social and life sciences. Psychological Review, 117, 134174.

D. A. Granger , J. R. Weisz , & D Kauneckis . (1994). Neuroendocrine reactivity, internalizing behavior problems, and control-related cognitions in clinic-referred children and adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 267276.

M. R. Gunnar , & D. M Vazquez . (2001). Low cortisol and a flattening of expected daytime rhythm: Potential indices of risk in human development. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 515538.

P. D. Hastings , C. Zahn-Waxler , J. Robinson , B. Usher , & D Bridges . (2000). The development of concern for others in children with behavior problems. Developmental Psychology, 36, 531546.

D. J. Hawes , J. Brennan , & M. R Dadds . (2009). Cortisol, callous-unemotional traits, and pathways to antisocial behavior. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 22, 357362.

K. M. Kitzmann , N. K. Gaylord , A. R. Holt , & E. D Kenny . (2003). Child witnesses to domestic violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 339352

B. Klimes-Dougan , P. D. Hastings , D. A. Granger , B. A. Usher , & C Zahn-Waxler . (2001). Adrenocortical activity in at-risk and normally developing adolescents: Individual differences in salivary cortisol levels, diurnal variation, and responses to social challenges. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 695719.

B. R. Loney , M. A. Butler , E. N. Lima , C. A. Counts , & L A Eckel . (2006). The relation between salivary cortisol, callous-unemotional traits, and conduct problems in an adolescent non-referred sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 3036.

N. L. Lopez-Duran , N. Hajal , S. L. Olson , B. T. Felt , & D. M Vazquez . (2009). Individual differences in cortisol responses to fear and frustration during middle childhood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 103, 285295.

S. J. Lupien , S. King , M. J. Meaney , & B. S McEwen . (2000). Child's stress hormone levels correlate with mother's socioeconomic status and depressive state. Biological Psychiatry, 48, 976980.

J. J McArdle . (2009). Latent variable modeling of differences and changes with longitudinal data. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 577605.

N. A Milgram . (1998). Children under stress. In T. H. Ollendick & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of child psychopathology (3rd ed., pp. 505533). New York: Plenum Press.

J. Obradovic , N. R. Bush , J. Stamperdahl , N. E. Adler , & W. T Boyce . (2010). Biological sensitivity to context: The interactive effects of stress reactivity and family adversity on socioemotional behavior and school readiness. Child Development, 81, 270289.

S. P. Putnam , & C. A Stifter . (2005). Behavioral approach-inhibition in toddlers: Prediction from infancy, positive and negative affective components, and relations with behavior problems. Child Development, 76, 212226.

K. M. Saltzman , G. W. Holden , & C. J Holahan . (2005). The psychobiology of children exposed to marital violence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 34, 129139.

E. P. Schwartz , D. A. Granger , E. J. Susman , M. R. Gunnar , & B Laird . (1998). Assessing salivary cortisol in studies of child development. Child Development, 69, 15031513.

G. Spangler , & M Schieche . (1998). Emotional and adrenocortical responses of infants to the Strange Situation: The differential function of emotional expression. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22, 681706.

M. A. Straus , S. L. Hamby , S. Boney-McCoy , & D. S Sugarman . (1996). The revised conflict tactics scales (CTS2). Journal of Family Issues, 17, 283316.

E. J Susman . (2006). Psychobiology of persistent antisocial behavior: Stress, early vulnerabilities, and the attenuation hypothesis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 30, 376389.

E. J. Susman , S. Dockray , V. L. Schiefelbein , S. Herwehe , Heaton, & L. D Dorn . (2007). Morningness/eveningness, morning-to-afternoon cortisol ratio, and antisocial behavior problems during puberty. Developmental Psychology, 43, 811822.

S. H. M. van Goozen , G. Fairchild , H. Snoek , & G. T Harold . (2007). The evidence for a neurobiological model of childhood antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 149182.

A. K. Maikovich , S. R. Jaffee , C. L. Odgers , & R. Gallop (2008). Effects of family violence on psychopathology symptoms in children previously exposed to maltreatment. Child Development, 79, 14981512.

J. A. King , R. A. Barkley , & S Barrett . (1998). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and the stress response. Biological Psychiatry, 44, 7274.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *