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Parental Problem Drinking is Associated with Children’s Adrenocortical Reactivity to Stress

Abstract

The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis plays an important role in adaptation to stress, but is vulnerable to chronic stress exposure. Parental problem drinking (PPD) represents such a chronic stressor, but there has been little research on children’s HPA axis activity in the context of PPD. To address this gap, associations between PPD and children’s adrenocortical reactivity were examined, with marital aggression and child emotional security as potential intervening variables. Participants were 69 community families (children aged 6–12 years). Children provided saliva samples before and 20 min after a social stress test, which were assayed for cortisol. Parents reported on their problem drinking (PD) and marital aggression, and children reported on their emotional insecurity about the marital relationship. Mother PD was significantly related to greater adrenocortical reactivity in her offspring. Father PD was significantly related to children’s greater involvement in marital conflict, which was significantly related to greater adrenocortical reactivity. Findings therefore indicate that parental PD is related to greater sensitivity of the HPA axis to social stress, partially because of emotional insecurity.

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Acknowledgments

This study was partially funded by the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women. Support was also provided by Grant Numbers UL1RR033173 [TL1 RR033172, KL2 RR033171] from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), funded by the Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and supported by the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research.

Conflicts of interest

In the interest of full disclosure, DAG is founder and Chief Strategy and Scientific Advisor at Salimetrics LLC (State College, PA) and SalivaBio LLC (Baltimore, MD). DAG’s relationships with these entities are managed by the policies of the Office of Research Integrity and Assurance at Arizona State University.

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Correspondence to Peggy S. Keller.

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Keller, P.S., Granger, D.A., Tyler, J. et al. Parental Problem Drinking is Associated with Children’s Adrenocortical Reactivity to Stress. J Child Fam Stud 24, 3145–3153 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0118-6

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Keywords

  • Problem drinking
  • Family stress
  • Cortisol
  • Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis
  • Marital aggression
  • Emotional insecurity