The impact of stress at different life stages on physical health and the buffering effects of maternal sensitivity

Allison K. Farrell, Jeffry A. Simpson, Elizabeth A. Carlson, Michelle M. Englund, Sooyeon Sung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Objective: Many studies indicate that early life stress leads to negative health outcomes in adulthood, and some suggest that high-quality parenting might buffer these effects. Most prior research, however, has relied on cross-sectional retrospective reports of stress and parenting. Our study tests how coder-rated stress and parenting quality assessed at different life stages predict adult health outcomes in a prospective, longitudinal study. Method: Participants were 163 individuals in the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation studied since birth. Physical health was assessed at age 32 with body mass index, self-reports of symptoms and illnesses experienced, and self-ratings of overall physical health. Stress was assessed by coder-rated interviews involving participants or their mothers at 16 time points partitioned into 5 life stages: early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and at age 32 (when health was assessed). Parenting quality was measured by coder ratings of each mother's provision of sensitive, responsive support at 7 time points between birth and age 13. Results: Early childhood, adolescent, and concurrent stress predicted adult health outcomes at age 32. Early childhood and adolescent stress, and adolescent and concurrent stress, both showed a "dual-risk" pattern, such that experiencing higher stress at both of these life stages predicted the worst health outcomes. Higher maternal sensitivity, however, buffered these deleterious effects. Conclusion: Our prospective data reveal that early childhood and adolescence are important developmental periods during which stress is influential for adult physical health. However, parenting interventions that promote greater sensitivity may help children in high-stress environments avoid negative adult health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)35-44
Number of pages10
JournalHealth Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 American Psychological Association.


  • Developmental antecedents
  • Longitudinal study
  • Parenting
  • Stress


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