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The Moderating Role of Social Support on the Cortisol Stress Response of Expectant Fathers Exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences



Social support buffers the impact of stress on multiple psychosocial domains and may buffer the impact of parental Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on parenting. However, little is understood about the biological pathways through which social support buffering occurs and research has rarely examined social support among fathers. This study examined the effects of ACEs and social support on the physiological stress response (cortisol levels) of expectant fathers.


Data were analyzed from a larger study of the influence of bio-psycho-social factors on early parenting processes in expectant mothers and fathers. Exposure to ACEs and social support were assessed, and salivary cortisol was collected from 38 expectant fathers, the majority of whom were African American, exposed to contextual risk. Multilevel random effects models tested associations between ACEs, social support and cortisol while controlling for sociodemographic covariates.


There was a significant interaction between the higher ACEs category (three or more) and the level of social support so that increased social support moderated the effect of exposure to a higher number of ACEs on baseline cortisol levels (p < 0.05). Differences in cortisol between high and low ACEs groups decreased as social support increased until there was no difference between the high and low ACEs groups at an MSPSS score of 64 (p = 0.056).


The apparent dosing effect of social support on the ACEs-cortisol relationship has important implications for parenting, as the buffering effect of social support may reduce the potential for harsh or insensitive parenting among fathers with high ACEs.

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Correspondence to Suzanne Brown.

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Brown, S., Carbone, J.T., Hicks, L.M. et al. The Moderating Role of Social Support on the Cortisol Stress Response of Expectant Fathers Exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences. J Fam Viol (2023).

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