Overestimating Self-Blame for Stressful Life Events and Adolescents’ Latent Trait Cortisol: The Moderating Role of Parental Warmth


Cognitive interpretations of stressful events impact their implications for physiological stress processes. However, whether such interpretations are related to trait cortisol—an indicator of individual differences in stress physiology—is unknown. In 112 early adolescent girls (M age = 12.39 years), this study examined the association between self-blame estimates for past year events and latent trait cortisol, and whether maternal warmth moderated effects. Overestimating self-blame (versus objective indices) for independent (uncontrollable) events was associated with lower latent trait cortisol, and maternal warmth moderated the effect of self-blame estimates on latent trait cortisol for each dependent (at least partially controllable) and interpersonal events. Implications for understanding the impact of cognitive and interpersonal factors on trait cortisol during early adolescence are discussed.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    There were not significant differences between those who did and did not complete the cortisol assessment on age, income, pubertal status, acute stress, chronic stress, or early adversity (ps > 0.10).

  2. 2.

    Three siblings of participants and two fathers participated in the study. However, all results remained the same when these individuals were excluded from the analyses.

  3. 3.

    Each event is classified as independent or dependent, and interpersonal or non-interpersonal. Thus, for example, some of the independent events are interpersonal and some are non-interpersonal. For analyses, there were not sufficient numbers of events to examine self-blame estimates for events stratified by two dimensions (e.g., independent interpersonal events).

  4. 4.

    In a prior paper in this sample (Stroud et al. 2016a), all 9 samples were used to derive latent trait cortisol. Model fit was unfavorable and none of the factor loadings of bedtime cortisol were significant, suggesting that the bedtime samples were not suitable for constructing the latent trait cortisol. For detailed discussion of why the bedtime samples may not be correlated with the morning samples, see Stroud et al. 2016a, and Doane et al. 2015.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge the families who participated in this study, all of the research staff who assisted with this study, and Andrea Gierens at Biochemisches Labor at the University of Trier for technical assistance with the salivary assays.

Authors’ Contributions

C.B.S. and F.R.C. contributed to the development of the research questions for this manuscript. C.B.S. and B.E.C. contributed to data acquisition. B.E.C. contributed to data coding. L.D.D. and F.R.C. contributed to data processing and preparation for analysis. F.R.C. conducted the statistical analysis. C.B.S. and F.R.C. contributed to drafting this manuscript, and all authors contributed feedback used in drafting and revising the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


This research was supported by institutional funds from Williams College (C.B.S., Principal Investigator). L.D.D. was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01HD079520 and a William T. Grant Foundation Early Scholar Award.

Data Sharing Declaration

The datasets generated and analyzed for the current study are not publicly available, but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Correspondence to Catherine B. Stroud.

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In the interest of full disclosure, D.A.G. is founder and Chief Scientific and Strategy Advisor of Salimetrics LLC (State College, PA) and SalivaBio LLC (Baltimore, MD). The other authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Williams College Institutional Review Board and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Because groups were dummy coded for event status, Eq. (1) can be simplified into 4 equations with the parameters estimated based on subsets of participants:

For GroupInd = 0 and GroupDep = 0: \(Y = \beta _7 \times \rm{warmth} + \alpha X + \varepsilon.\)

For GroupInd = 0 and GroupDep = 1: \(Y = \beta _2 \times \rm{SBest}_{Dep} + \beta _4 + \beta _6 \times \rm{SBest}_{Dep} \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _7 \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _9 \times \rm{warmth} + \alpha X + \varepsilon.\)

For GroupInd = 1 and GroupDep = 0: \(Y = \beta _1 \times \rm{SBest}_{Ind} + \beta _3 + \beta _5 \times \rm{SBest}_{Ind} \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _7 \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _8 \times \rm{warmth} + \alpha X + \varepsilon.\)

For GroupInd = 1 and GroupDep = 1:

$$\begin{array}{l}Y = \beta _1 \times \rm{SBest}_{Ind} + \beta _2 \times \rm{SBest}_{Dep} + \beta _3 + \beta _4 + \beta _5 \times \rm{SBest}_{Ind} \times \rm{warmth}\\ + \beta _6 \times \rm{SBest}_{Dep} \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _7 \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _8 \times \rm{warmth} + \beta _9 \times \rm{warmth} + \alpha X + \varepsilon. \end{array}$$

In Eq. (2), β1 and β2 = the effects of self-blame estimates on LTC for GroupInd = 1 and for GroupDep = 1, respectively; β3 = LTC difference between GroupInd = 1 versus GroupInd = 0; β4= LTC difference between GroupDep = 1 versus GroupDep = 0; β5 and β6 = interaction of self-blame estimates and maternal warmth for independent events and for dependent events, respectively; β7 = the effect of warmth on LTC for those with no events; β8 = difference in the effect of warmth on LTC between those with at least one independent event only (GroupInd = 1 and GroupDep = 0) versus those with no events (GroupDep = 0 and GroupInd = 0); β9 = difference in the effect of warmth on LTC between those with (GroupDep = 1 and GroupInd = 1) versus without (GroupInd = 1 and GroupDep = 0) events. The models for interpersonal and non-interpersonal events were constructed in the same way.

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Stroud, C.B., Chen, F.R., Curzi, B.E. et al. Overestimating Self-Blame for Stressful Life Events and Adolescents’ Latent Trait Cortisol: The Moderating Role of Parental Warmth. J Youth Adolescence 49, 283–298 (2020).

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  • Cognitive vulnerability
  • Stressful life events
  • Trait cortisol
  • Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis
  • Maternal warmth