The Relation between Specific Parenting Behaviors and Toddlers’ Early Anxious Behaviors is Moderated by Toddler Cortisol Reactivity

Abstract

Differential susceptibility theory posits that neurobiological reactivity (e.g., cortisol levels) should be considered as an individual index of susceptibility to both positive and negative environments. The current investigation separately examines cortisol reactivity and total concentration in toddlerhood as moderators of the longitudinal relation between maternal protection and encouragement of independence and increases or decreases in observed anxious behaviors, respectively. A total of 119 mother-toddler dyads participated in a laboratory visit when toddlers were 12- to 18-months-old. Mothers reported on their parenting behaviors and toddlers participated in a novelty episode from which their anxious behaviors were coded. Toddlers provided three saliva samples, yielding measures of cortisol reactivity and total cortisol concentration. One year later, dyads returned to the laboratory where toddlers participated in another novelty episode to observationally assess anxious behaviors. Results revealed that maternal protection tended to relate to greater increases in anxious behaviors one year later only for toddlers who displayed high cortisol reactivity. Cortisol reactivity also moderated the relation between maternal encouragement of independence and change in toddler anxious behaviors, with this parenting behavior relating to greater decreases in anxious behaviors only for toddlers with high cortisol reactivity. Results examining total cortisol concentration as a moderator were not significant. Results suggest the importance of considering toddler cortisol reactivity a context of susceptibility when examining the longitudinal relation between parenting behaviors and the development of anxious behaviors in toddlerhood.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Given the non-significant relation between cortisol levels and time of day of the visit, time was not controlled for in primary analyses. Exploratory analyses controlling for time were conducted and the pattern of results did not change. These results are available by request.

  2. 2.

    Models would not converge for analyses incorporating separate saliva samples as missing data correlates. Because of this, a mean of available cortisol values for each participant was included as an auxiliary variable to inform the missing data pattern. The individual’s average cortisol level demonstrated a strong correlation with their individual cortisol samples (rs > .85, ps < .000).

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Acknowledgements

We express our appreciation to the staff of the Behavior, Emotions, and Relationship laboratory that assisted with data collection and coding, and the families and toddlers who participated in this project.

Funding

The project from which these data were derived was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (R15 HD076158).

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Correspondence to Anne E. Kalomiris.

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Kalomiris, A.E., Phelps, R.A. & Kiel, E.J. The Relation between Specific Parenting Behaviors and Toddlers’ Early Anxious Behaviors is Moderated by Toddler Cortisol Reactivity. J Abnorm Child Psychol 47, 1367–1377 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00522-9

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Keywords

  • Anxiety risk
  • Parenting
  • Cortisol
  • Toddlers
  • Differential susceptibility