Do mothers pass their own stress on to their children?

Parent-Child Stress Contagion in Chronically Stressed Families

Sara Waters, Assistant Professor, Human Development

Sara Waters came to WSU Vancouver in 2015 from the University of California at San Francisco. Her research interests include emotional and physiological regulation development, parent-child attachment relationship, early adversity and trauma.SaraWaters

Her New Faculty Seed Grant project looks at how chronic stress “gets under the skin” and compromises people’s long-term health. Identifying how this process occurs in early life is critical to supporting healthy development.

One pathway may be through transmission of physiological stress from parent to child. The research involves eliciting an acute physiological stress response in the parent alone and then measuring stress “contagion” between parent and child as evidenced by physiological responses when they get back together. This study is the first to examine stress contagion in chronically stressed families.

The Healthy Emotional Development lab research team, directed by Waters, began data collection in fall 2015, with eight volunteer mothers and their 10- to 14-month-old children from the community. The remaining 12 pairs needed to reach the funded sample size of 20 are participating in early 2016.Sara2

Waters and her graduate student, Karen Higgins (a member of the first cohort of Prevention Science Ph.D. students on the Vancouver campus), have begun preparing the physiological data for analysis. In addition, for her master’s thesis project, Higgins is examining how maternal resiliency is related to physiological stress contagion and chronic stress.

Waters will use the results from the first 20 pairs to apply for a federal grant to support a full-scale study of chronic stress and physiological responses. She recently received a foundation gift that will enable data collection to continue this year.

The long-term goals of the research include developing and evaluating an intervention to help chronically stressed mothers avoid transmitting their physiological stress to their children.

The Healthy Emotional Development lab, located in the McClaskey building on the Vancouver campus, includes state-of-the-art electrocardiography and impedance-cardiography equipment as well as audiovisual equipment.

Waters also received a WSU Vancouver mini grant to add a biological measure of chronic stress to the study. Cortisol levels found in small amounts of human hair have recently been identified as valid measures of cortisol levels circulating in the body over the previous several months.

With a WSU CAHNRS internship grant, Waters was able to hire human development student Evan Lemke as a part-time project coordinator.

The Healthy Emotional Development lab team also includes three undergraduates majoring in human development: Mykaila Forsyth, Michelle Rogers and Alyse Scholten.


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