A prospective study of childhood negative events, temperament, adolescent coping, and stress reactivity in young adulthood

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Accumulating evidence implicates exposure to adverse childhood experiences in the development of hypocortisolism in the long-term, and researchers are increasingly examining individual-level mechanisms that may underlie, exacerbate or attenuate this relation among at-risk populations. The current study takes a developmentally

Accumulating evidence implicates exposure to adverse childhood experiences in the development of hypocortisolism in the long-term, and researchers are increasingly examining individual-level mechanisms that may underlie, exacerbate or attenuate this relation among at-risk populations. The current study takes a developmentally and theoretically informed approach to examining episodic childhood stressors, inherent and voluntary self-regulation, and physiological reactivity among a longitudinal sample of youth who experienced parental divorce. Participants were drawn from a larger randomized controlled trial of a preventive intervention for children of divorce between the ages of 9 and 12. The current sample included 159 young adults (mean age = 25.5 years; 53% male; 94% Caucasian) who participated in six waves of data collection, including a 15-year follow-up study. Participants reported on exposure to negative life events (four times over a 9-month period) during childhood, and mothers rated child temperament. Six years later, youth reported on the use of active and avoidant coping strategies, and 15 years later, they participated in a standardized psychosocial stress task and provided salivary cortisol samples prior to and following the task. Path analyses within a structural equation framework revealed that a multiple mediation model best fit the data. It was found that children with better mother-rated self-regulation (i.e. low impulsivity, low negative emotionality, and high attentional focus) exhibited lower total cortisol output 15 years later. In addition, greater self-regulation in childhood predicted greater use of active coping in adolescence, whereas a greater number of negative life events predicted increased use of avoidant coping in adolescence. Finally, a greater number of negative events in childhood predicted marginally lower total cortisol output, and higher levels of active coping in adolescence were associated with greater total cortisol output in young adulthood. Findings suggest that children of divorce who exhibit better self-regulation evidence lower cortisol output during a standardized psychosocial stress task relative to those who have higher impulsivity, lower attentional focus, and/or higher negative emotionality. The conceptual significance of the current findings, including the lack of evidence for hypothesized relations, methodological issues that arose, and issues in need of future research are discussed.