The social buffering of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis in humans: Developmental and experiential determinants

Megan R. Gunnar, Camelia E. Hostinar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Social buffering, a subset of social support, is the process through which the availability of a conspecific reduces the activity of stress-mediating neurobiological systems. While its role in coping and resilience is significant, we know little about its developmental history in humans. This brief review presents an integrative developmental account of the social buffering of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical (HPA) stress reactivity in humans, from infancy to adulthood. During infancy, parents are powerful stress-regulators for children, but child temperament also plays a role and interacts with parenting quality to predict the magnitude of stress responses to fear or pain stimuli. Recent work indicates that parental support remains a potent stress buffer into late childhood, but that it loses its effectiveness as a buffer of the HPA axis by adolescence. Puberty may be the switch that alters the potency of parental buffering. Beginning in middle childhood, friends may serve as stress buffers, particularly when other peers are the source of stress. By adulthood, romantic partners assume this protective role, though studies often reveal sex differences that are currently not well understood. Translational research across species will be critical for developing a mechanistic understanding of social buffering and the processes involved in developmental changes noted in this review.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-488
Number of pages10
JournalSocial neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 3 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to: Megan R. Gunnar, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, 51 East River Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. E-mail: [email protected] Neither Megan Gunnar nor Camelia Hostinar have any relevant financial or nonfinancial relationships to disclose. This work was supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s Program on Child and Brain Development, NIMH Center funds [grant number MH078105] and NSF conference funds [grant number BCS-1439258] to Megan R. Gunnar and NICHD award [grant number F32HD078048] to Camelia E. Hostinar. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Taylor & Francis.


  • Cortisol
  • Development
  • HPA axis
  • Social buffering


Dive into the research topics of 'The social buffering of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis in humans: Developmental and experiential determinants'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this