OBJECTIVES: To assess the interplay of prior life stress and characteristics of resilience in determining how children cope with potentially stressful situations, using a two-phase study that triangulates parent-child dyadic interview data with subsequent experience of an acute laboratory stressor in 7-11-year-olds.
METHODS: Participants (n = 34) were designated as being in one of four groups based on high/low levels of prior stress experience and high/low resilience ratings assessed during at-home interviews and from questionnaires measuring recent life events, hassles, and trait coping. During a subsequent laboratory stress protocol, salivary cortisol and heart rate were monitored, and a verbal subjective report was provided.
RESULTS: Salivary cortisol showed a significant increase in anticipation of the stress test, heart rate increased during the test, and children self-reported the task as stressful. Males displayed higher levels of cortisol than females in the anticipatory period. We observed no increase in salivary cortisol in response to the stress testing phase. Using the stress/resilience categorization, children with a higher level of resilience were differentiated by cortisol level in anticipation of the acute stress experiment based on their level of prior life stress. Highly resilient children with greater experience of prior life stress showed a lower anticipatory cortisol response than highly resilient children with less experience of prior life stress.
CONCLUSIONS: This study highlights the relevance of contextual factors, such as prior stress experience and resilience, in physiological response to the anticipation of acute stress and has implications for understanding how children cope with stressful experiences.