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Does Dampened Physiological Reactivity Protect Youth in Aggressive Family Environments?

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  • This research was supported by NIH-NRSA Grant F32HD063255 awarded to Saxbe and by NIH-NICHD Grant R01 HD046807 and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Grant 00-12802 awarded to Margolin. We thank the families who participated in the study and other members of the USC Family Studies Project.

concerning this article should be addressed to Darby E. Saxbe, USC Dornsife Psychology Department, 3620 South McClintock Avenue, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061. Electronic mail may be sent to dsaxbe@usc.edu.

Abstract

Is an attenuated physiological response to family conflict, seen in some youth exposed to early adversity, protective or problematic? A longitudinal study including 54 youth (average age 15.2 years) found that those with higher cumulative family aggression exposure showed lower cortisol output during a laboratory-based conflict discussion with their parents, and were less likely to show the normative pattern of increased cortisol reactivity to a discussion they rated as more conflictual. Family aggression interacted with cortisol reactivity in predicting youth adjustment: Adolescents from more aggressive homes who were also more reactive to the discussion reported more posttraumatic stress symptoms and more antisocial behavior. These results suggest that attenuated reactivity may protect youth from the negative consequences associated with aggressive family environments.

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