Examining Morning HPA Axis Activity as a Moderator of Hostile, Over-reactive Parenting on Children's Skills for Success in School

Infant Child Dev. Jul-Aug 2018;27(4):e2083. doi: 10.1002/icd.2083. Epub 2018 Feb 22.


This study examined children's morning HPA axis activation as a moderator of links between hostile, over-reactive parenting at age 4.5 years and children's skills for success in school (higher executive function and literacy, and less externalizing behavior) at age 6. Participants included 361 adoptive families. Parenting was self-reported. HPA axis activation was measured by basal levels in morning cortisol. Executive function and literacy were assessed via standardized tasks. Externalizing behavior was reported by teachers. Results indicated that hostile, over-reactive parenting predicted more externalizing behavior and lower executive functioning regardless of children's morning HPA axis activation. HPA axis activation moderated the effects of hostile, over-reactive parenting on literacy. Among children with moderate to high morning HPA axis activation (approximately 60% of the sample), harsh parenting was linked with lower literacy; children with low morning HPA axis activation exhibited better literacy in the context of more hostile, over-reactive parenting. Yet, across the sample, hostile, over-reactive parenting remained in the low to moderate range, not in the high range. Findings are discussed in the context of considering not only whether children's stress system activation moderates responses to their environments, but also how these processes operate for different developmental outcomes.

Keywords: HPA; cortisol; executive function; externalizing; literacy; parenting; school readiness.