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Associations between multisystem stress reactivity and peer nominated aggression in early childhood vary by sex

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2021

Melissa J. Hagan
Psychology Department, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, USA Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA
Danielle S. Roubinov
Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA
W. Thomas Boyce
Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA
Nicole R. Bush
Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA
E-mail address:


There is emerging evidence that the development of problematic aggression in childhood may be associated with specific physiological stress response patterns, with both biological overactivation and underactivation implicated. This study tested associations between sex-specific patterns of stress responses across the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and peer nominations of aggression among 271 kindergarten children (Mean age = 5.32 years; 52% Female; 44% White). Upon entry to kindergarten, children participated in a multidomain standardized stress paradigm. Changes in pre-ejection period (PEP) and salivary cortisol were assessed. On a separate day, children provided peer ratings of physical and relational aggression in a standardized interview. As expected, there was a significant three-way interaction between PEP, cortisol reactivity, and sex, but only for physical aggression. Among boys, cortisol reactivity was positively associated with physical aggression only for those with higher SNS reactivity. Findings suggest that for boys, asymmetrical and symmetrical HPA/SNS reactivity may be associated with lower and higher risk for peer-directed physical aggression, respectively. Understanding the complex associations between multisystem physiology, child sex and peer-directed aggression in early childhood may offer insight into individual differences underlying the emergence of behavioral dysregulation in early peer contexts.

Special Section 2: Early Adversity and Development: Contributions from the Field
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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