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Cortisol Stress Response Variability in Early Adolescence: Attachment, Affect and Sex


Attachment, affect, and sex shape responsivity to psychosocial stress. Concurrent social contexts influence cortisol secretion, a stress hormone and biological marker of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity. Patterns of attachment, emotion status, and sex were hypothesized to relate to bifurcated, that is, accentuated and attenuated, cortisol reactivity. The theoretical framework for this study posits that multiple individual differences mediate a cortisol stress response. The effects of two psychosocial stress interventions, a modified Trier Social Stress Test for Teens and the Frustration Social Stressor for Adolescents were developed and investigated with early adolescents. Both of these protocols induced a significant stress reaction and evoked predicted bifurcation in cortisol responses; an increase or decrease from baseline to reactivity. In Study I, 120 predominantly middle-class, Euro-Canadian early adolescents with a mean age of 13.43 years were studied. The girls’ attenuated cortisol reactivity to the public performance stressor related significantly to their self-reported lower maternal-attachment and higher trait-anger. In Study II, a community sample of 146 predominantly Euro-Canadian middle-class youth, with an average age of 14.5 years participated. Their self-reports of higher trait-anger and trait-anxiety, and lower parental attachment by both sexes related differentially to accentuated and attenuated cortisol reactivity to the frustration stressor. Thus, attachment, affect, sex, and the stressor contextual factors were associated with the adrenal-cortical responses of these adolescents through complex interactions. Further studies of individual differences in physiological responses to stress are called for in order to clarify the identities of concurrent protective and risk factors in the psychosocial stress and physiological stress responses of early adolescents.

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We thank the adolescent participants in this study and appreciate the cooperation of their teachers and parents who assisted in supporting the data collection in Fredericton NB and Vancouver BC Canada. We also thank the numerous research assistants who made the research possible. We also offer thanks to E. Leslie Cameron for drawing the figures.

Authors’ Contributions

C.A.C. conceived of the two studies in collaboration with J.M.W. for Study I and S.M. for Study II. She also wrote first drafts of the manuscript and coordinated the development of its final form. J.M.W. designed and conducted Study I. S.M. designed and conducted Study II. She also performed the final statistical analyses of both Studies I and II and co-wrote the manuscript. E.J.S. collaborated in the design of both Studies I and II and the analyses of Study I. K.W.-E. and J.W. provided guidance in the conduct and analysis of Study II. All authors were consulted and they approved the final version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Catherine Ann Cameron.

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Funding was generously provided by MindCareNew Brunswick for Study I and the Healthy Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at UBC for Study II.

Ethical Approval

Institutional Ethics Review Boards at the University of New Brunswick and the Fredericton NB School Board and the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver BC School Board approved the conduct of Studies I and II respectively. The ethical standards of the Canadian Psychological Association and the guidelines of the Society for Research in Child Development were rigorously adhered to.

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Written informed consent was obtained from the parents/guardians of all participants and informed assent was obtained from all participants.

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Cameron, C.A., McKay, S., Susman, E.J. et al. Cortisol Stress Response Variability in Early Adolescence: Attachment, Affect and Sex. J Youth Adolescence 46, 104–120 (2017).

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  • Cortisol
  • Adolescence
  • Stress
  • Attachment
  • Affect
  • Sex