New study links parental conflict to stress hormone in children

Author: Arts and Letters


A new study by a team of researchers that includes University of Notre Dame professor of psychology E. Mark Cummings finds that children who are upset when their parents fight are more likely to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Cummings, the Notre Dame Professor of Psychology, and researchers from Rochester University and the University of Minnesota, studied more than 200 6-year-olds and their mothers to determine whether children who showed specific behavior patterns of reacting to conflict also had changes in cortisol levels during simulated telephone arguments between their parents. Their research showed that children who show signs of distress when exposed to parental conflict have higher levels of cortisol in their system.

Cortisol causes increases in blood pressure and blood sugar and reduces immune responses.

Earlier studies by Cummings and his colleagues have found that constructive marital conflict, in which parents express or engage in physical affection, problem solving, compromise or positive feelings, may actually increase children’s security. Thus, elevated cortisol levels responding may well be limited to children’s exposure to destructive parental conflict.

In the new study, which was published in the journal Child Development, the authors note that the findings could affect future policy and practice. They indicate that physiological measures like cortisol levels may help determine how well intervention programs are doing as well as the common practice of looking for improvements in how children function psychologically.

As director of “The Happy Couples and Happy Kids Project,” Cummings has conducted extensive research on how marital conflict negatively influences a child’s development. He was instrumental in the establishment of Notre Dame’s Center for Children and Families, a community resource for families in Northern Indiana where parents can learn strategies for constructive conflict resolution.

Contact: E. Mark Cummings, Notre Dame Professor of Psychology, 574-631-3404,

Originally published by William G. Gilroy at on November 20, 2008.