Adolescents’ Daily Experiences with Parents and Stress: Physical Health Problems and Cortisol Levels

During adolescence, interaction with parents can become a source of stress. Although it might seem that these daily hassles are trivial, the stress tends to accumulate and negatively impact health.


By Tara Kuther

Research has revealed that extreme adversity during adolescence, such as maltreatment, impacts physical health problems in adulthood. What about the everyday ups and downs characteristic of parent-adolescent interactions? Research with adults suggests that repeated exposure to daily hassles and stressors is associated with poor short and long-term health by influencing levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that reduces inflammation.
Lippold and colleagues (2014) used a daily diary approach to examine associations between positive and negative parent-adolescent experiences, cortisol levels, and self-reported physical health symptoms in a sample of 132 adolescents (mean age of 13). Over phone calls on eight consecutive evenings youth provided information on their activities, emotions, and experiences from the time of the previous call to the current call. Measures included positive experiences with parents (for example, “How often did your parent say something nice about you”), negative experiences with parents (“How often did your parent criticize you?”), and youth physical symptoms (such as headache, tiredness, allergies, or stomachache). Adolescents provided saliva samples four times each day: upon waking and before getting out of bed, 30 minutes after waking, before dinner, and before going to bed. Cortisol levels tend to be highest upon waking and decline over the course of the day; therefore, cortisol levels are usually lowest at bedtime.

For girls, but not boys, negative experiences with parents were associated with more reported physical health symptoms and less of a decline in cortisol between dinner and bedtime. Generally, negative experiences with mothers were associated with higher cortisol levels at dinner and bedtime in both boys and girls whereas positive experiences with fathers were associated with lower cortisol levels at dinner.

The context of the parent-adolescent relationship also mattered. Youth who experienced fewer negative interactions with parents on average were more sensitive to negativity when it did occur and may have experienced it as highly stressful as evidenced by more physical symptoms and higher bedtime cortisol than usual. In turn, adolescents whose average experiences with parents were highly negative were less sensitive to daily variation in negative experiences than youth who experience less parental negativity. Adolescents who experienced more often negative interactions with parents tended to show less reduction of cortisol at bedtime, even on days without negativity. These results suggest that teens who experience frequent negative interactions with parents tend to show higher levels of stress reactivity that do not decline over the day and a high risk for short and potentially long term health problems that accompany chronic stress.

Read more:

Lippold, M. A., McHale, S. M., Davis, K. D., Almeida, D. M. and King, R. B. (2014), Experiences with parents and youth physical health symptoms and cortisol: A daily diary investigation. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26 (2), 226-240. doi: 10.1111/jora.12186