Childhood Family Instability, Adult Stress Reactivity, and Consequences for Health

The family environments in which children are born and raised have a profound influence on their behavior, education, and health. With the overlapping demographic and social trends of later age at marriage, greater acceptability of divorce and non-marital childbearing, and more cohabitation, the landscape of American families is diverse and dynamic. According to recent Census data, 29% of American children live with only one biological parent, and 3.5% reside with neither biological parent. Such cross-sectional estimates, however, belie the true complexity and dynamism of family structures. Not only do children increasingly live in diverse family forms, but the childhood experience of family structure is dynamic, with children likely to live in a variety of families by the time they reach adulthood. Using nationally representative integrated demographic, social, contextual and biological data on children in the U.S., the study will trace the biological pathways through which childhood family instability influences adult health. The study hypothesizes that family instability creates intense and chronic stress that will be evident in measures of adult stress reactivity and that have negative long-term health consequences. The project will evaluate the importance of instability during sensitive developmental stages of early childhood and adolescence, and investigate gender, race, and ethnic differences in stress response processes. This project contributes to the field by examining the enduring health consequences of childhood exposure to dynamic family structures, a common life experience for today’s children. Findings will further our understanding of the ways in which the social environment “gets under the skin” to influence physiological functioning and biological processes that have consequences for health. Knowledge gained from this project will help more effectively target child welfare policies to crucial developmental periods, and to better understand and reduce health disparities. An interdisciplinary team of highly skilled mentors developed a personalized training plan to support the Investigator in pursuit of her research and career goals. Activities will provide the Investigator with the training necessary to develop expertise in biosocial research and engage in productive interdisciplinary research at the intersection of social and biomedical sciences.

Principal Investigator: Kathleen Mullan Harris

Other Investigators: Lauren Gaydosh

Funding Source: NIH NICHD

Grant Number: F32HD084117

Funding Period: 8/31/2015 - 8/30/2018

Primary Research Area: Population Health

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