Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 41, Issue 8, pp 1299–1310 | Cite as

Early Exposure to Parental Depression and Parenting: Associations with Young Offspring’s Stress Physiology and Oppositional Behavior

  • Lea R. Dougherty
  • Marissa R. Tolep
  • Victoria C. Smith
  • Suzanne Rose


Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity to stress is posited to play a role in the intergenerational transmission of risk for psychopathology and other negative outcomes in the offspring of depressed parents. We tested the hypothesis that the joint, interactive effects of exposure to parental depression during early childhood and parental hostility impact the development of young children’s stress physiology and early emerging behavior problems. A sample of 165 preschool-age children (81 boys, 84 girls), of whom 103 had a parent with a history of depression, was exposed to a stress-inducing laboratory task, and five salivary cortisol samples were obtained. Parents completed clinical interviews and an observational parent–child interaction task. We found that the offspring exposed to maternal depression during early childhood and whose parents displayed hostile parenting behaviors during an observational task evidenced high and increasing cortisol levels in response to a laboratory stressor. In addition, the total amount of exposure to maternal depression over the child’s life exerted a dose–response effect on the positive relation between parental hostility and child observed oppositional behavior. This study underscores the importance of the early rearing environment on young children’s stress physiology and early emerging behavior problems.


Parental depression Parenting Offspring risk Cortisol HPA axis Preschool 



This research was supported by the University of Maryland (UMD) College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Dean’s Research Initiative Award (LRD) and the UMD Research and Scholars Award (LRD). We are indebted to the families and staff who made this study possible. We are especially grateful to Caitlin Condit for all her efforts in recruiting families and running participants.

Conflict of interest

Authors report no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lea R. Dougherty
    • 1
  • Marissa R. Tolep
    • 1
  • Victoria C. Smith
    • 1
  • Suzanne Rose
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Maryland College ParkCollege ParkUSA

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