Social stress buffering by friends in childhood and adolescence: Effects on HPA and oxytocin activity

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Previous research has demonstrated that before puberty, parents are able to buffer, and often completely block, cortisol responses to social evaluative stressors (e.g., Trier Social Stress Test; TSST). However, after puberty, parents no longer provide a powerful buffer of the HPA axis from a social-evaluative stressor. The current study investigates whether friends can buffer the HPA axis in both children and adolescents compared to parents and whether similar stress-ameliorating patterns can also be observed in oxytocin activity. A total of 109 participants (54 children aged 9–10 and 55 adolescents aged 15–16; half of each sex) completed the TSST and were randomly assigned to prepare for their speech with their parent or friend for 5 minutes beforehand. Salivary cortisol and urinary oxytocin were measured before and after the TSST. For children, cortisol responses were comparable regardless of who helped the child prepare the speech. For adolescents, however, friends actually amplified the cortisol response compared to parents. In addition, adolescents produced less oxytocin than children, as did males compared to females. Notably, for boys, oxytocin levels decreased across the session if participants prepared with a friend rather than their parent. The mean change was in the same direction but not significant for girls. These results indicate that friends do not take over the social buffering role by age 15–16, which may inform interventions in at-risk children and adolescents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8-21
Number of pages14
JournalSocial neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors were supported by the following grants: an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship and a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the University of Minnesota to JR Doom, and a University of Minnesota Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Advanced Research Fellowship grant to CM Doyle. This research was supported by funds from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Experience-based Brain and Biological Development Program [NICHD HD075349], [NSF BCS-1439258] to MR Gunnar. In addition, this research was supported by an APA Dissertation Research grant, APA Division 7 Dissertation Research grant, University of Minnesota Women?s Philanthropic Leadership Circle grant, and a University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development small grant to JR Doom. The conference that occasioned this special issue was supported by NSF grant [BCS-1439258].

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • HPA axis
  • Social buffering
  • adolescence
  • cortisol
  • oxytocin


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