Adolescent cortisol and DHEA responses to stress as prospective predictors of emotional and behavioral difficulties: A person-centered approach

Jason José Bendezú, Mariann Howland, Michelle Thai, Kristine Marceau, Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff, Paul D. Hastings, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Well-orchestrated cortisol and DHEA stress responsivity is thought to support efficacious stressor management (i.e., coping) and reduce risk for psychopathology during adolescence. Evidence of these relations, however, is lacking empirically. This longitudinal investigation had three aims: 1) to identify within-adolescent profiles of joint cortisol-DHEA responsivity, 2) examine profiles as prospective predictors of adolescents’ later emotional and behavioral difficulties, and 3) examine whether distraction coping helped buffer such prospective risk in each profile. Method: At Time 1, boys (n = 110) and girls (n = 105) between 11 and 16 years of age with varied levels of risk for psychopathology completed a lab-based socio-evaluative stressor and questionnaires (e.g., coping, internalizing and externalizing problems). Emotional and behavioral adjustment was assessed again at Time 2 (2 years later). Results: Multi-trajectory modeling of adolescents’ cortisol and DHEA within the context of the stressor revealed three groups: Normative (n = 107; 49.8%), Hyperresponsive (n = 64; 29.8%), Hyporesponsive (n = 44; 20.5%). Relative to Normative, Hyperresponsive and Hyporesponsive adolescents were more and less advanced in pubertal status, respectively. Hyperresponsive adolescents, but not Hyporesponsive, reported greater emotional and behavioral problems at Time 2, relative to Normative adolescents. Links between distraction coping and Time 2 adjustment varied across the groups. Specifically, distraction coping was associated with fewer Time 2 emotional and behavioral problems for Normative adolescents. However, the converse was true for Hyporesponsive adolescents, with distraction associated with greater Time 2 emotional and behavioral problems. Distraction was not associated with Time 2 emotional and behavioral problems for Hyperresponsive adolescents (i.e., elevated levels irrespective of distraction coping utilization). Conclusion: Our results strengthen inference about the role neuroendocrine coordination plays in risk for psychopathology. Findings also help to clarify inconsistent distraction coping–psychopathology linkages, illustrating different patterns of cortisol-DHEA responsivity that support as well as thwart the use of this potentially efficacious strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105365
Early online dateJul 26 2021
StatePublished - Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Manuscript preparation was supported by NIMH Grant T32 MH015755 (Cicchetti) and NIDA Grant K01 DA039288 . The AES study was funded as part of a research program in the Section of Developmental Psychopathology supported by the Intramural Research Program of the NIMH ( 97-M-0116 , Zahn-Waxler).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021


  • Adolescence
  • Coping
  • Cortisol
  • DHEA
  • Externalizing
  • Internalizing

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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