Interparental violence, maternal emotional unavailability and children's cortisol functioning in family contexts

Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, Patrick T. Davies, Dante Cicchetti, Liviah G. Manning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Our goal in the present study was to examine the specificity of pathways among interparental violence, maternal emotional unavailability, and children's cortisol reactivity to emotional stressors within interparental and parent- child relationships. The study also tested whether detrimental family contexts were associated, on average, with hypocortisolism or hypercortisolism responses to stressful family interactions in young children. Participants included 201 toddlers and their mothers who were from impoverished backgrounds and who experienced disproportionate levels of family violence. Assessments of interparental violence were derived from maternal surveys and interviews, whereas maternal emotional unavailability was assessed through maternal reports and observer ratings of caregiving. Salivary cortisol levels were sampled at 3 time points before and after laboratory paradigms designed to elicit children's reactivity to stressful interparental and parent- child contexts. Results indicated that interparental violence and the mother's emotional unavailability were differentially associated with children's adrenocorticol stress reactivity. Furthermore, these family risk contexts predicted lower cortisol change in response to distress. The results are interpreted in the context of risky family and emotional security theory conceptualizations that underscore how family contexts differentially impact children's physiological regulatory capacities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)237-249
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Attachment
  • Cortisol
  • Interparental conflict
  • Parenting


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