Cortisol and Parenting Predict Pathways to Disinhibited Social Engagement and Social Functioning in Previously Institutionalized Children

Carrie E. DePasquale, Jamie M. Lawler, Kalsea J. Koss, Megan R. Gunnar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Previously institutionalized children on average show persistent deficits in physiological and behavioral regulation, as well as a lack of normative reticence towards strangers, or disinhibited social engagement (DSE). Post-adoption parenting, specifically a combination of supportive presence and structure/limit-setting, may protect against DSE over time via better adrenocortical functioning. This study examined the impact of adrenocortical activity and post-adoption parenting on DSE across the first two years post-adoption (age at adoption: 16–36 months) and observed kindergarten social outcomes in previously institutionalized children (n = 94) compared to non-adopted children (n = 52). Path analyses indicated a developmental cascade from institutional care (operationalized as a dichotomous group variable, age at adoption, and months of institutionalization) to blunted adrenocortical activity, increased DSE, and lower kindergarten social competence. Consistent with a permissive parenting style, higher parental support was associated with increased DSE, but only when not accompanied by effective structure/limit-setting. Further, parental structure reduced the association between blunted adrenocortical activity and DSE behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)797-808
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the International Adoption Project and the families for their participation. Grant support was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, R01 MH080905 and P50 MH078105 (to MRG), the Center for Neurobehavioral Development (University of Minnesota), and National Institute of Mental Health training grant T32 MH015755 (to CED). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not represent the views of the National Institutes of Health.


  • Cortisol
  • Disinhibited social engagement
  • Institutional care
  • Parenting style/process
  • Social competence


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