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Low salivary cortisol levels and externalizing behavior problems in youth

  • ELIZABETH A. SHIRTCLIFF (a1), DOUGLAS A. GRANGER (a2), ALAN BOOTH (a2) and DAVID JOHNSON (a2)

Abstract

Research linking basal cortisol levels with internalizing and externalizing behavior problems in youths has yielded inconsistent results. We hypothesize that the high moment to moment variation in adrenocortical activity requires an analytical strategy that separates variance in cortisol levels attributable to “stable traitlike” versus “state or situationally specific” sources. Early morning saliva samples were obtained from 724 youths (M age = 13.5 years; range = 6–16 years in Year 1) on 2 successive days 1 year apart. Latent state–trait modeling revealed that 70% of the variance in cortisol levels could be attributed to statelike sources, and 28% to traitlike sources. For boys only, higher levels of externalizing problem behaviors were consistently associated with lower cortisol attributable to traitlike sources across 3 years of behavioral assessment. The inverse association between individual differences in cortisol and externalizing problem behavior has previously only been reported in studies of at-risk or clinical groups. The present findings suggest the relationship is a stable phenomenon that spans both normative and atypical child development. Studies are needed to reveal the biosocial mechanisms involved in the establishment and maintenance of this phenomenon, and to decipher whether individual differences in this hormone–behavior link confers risk or resilience.This research was supported in part by the Behavioral Endocrinology Laboratory, and the Population Research Institute (PRI) at Pennsylvania State University, as well as the W. T. Grant Foundation (Grant 9617796). PRI has core support from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (Grant 1-HD28263). Collection of data on family process and child psychosocial functioning was supported by two grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD 32336 and HD 29409) to Ann Crouter and Susan McHale.

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Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Douglas A. Granger, Behavioral Endocrinology Laboratory, Department of Biobehavioral Health, 315 Health and Human Development East, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802; E-mail: dag11@psu.edu.

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