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biobehavioral sciences, cortisol, emotional stress, Head Start Program, maternal behavior, maternal-child engagement, preschool child, testosterone



  1. Clowtis, Licia M.
  2. Kang, Duck-Hee
  3. Padhye, Nikhil S.
  4. Rozmus, Cathy
  5. Barratt, Michelle S.


Background: Exposure to high levels of maternal stress and ineffective maternal-child engagement (MC-E) may adversely affect child health-related outcomes.


Objective: The aim of this study was to examine the impact of maternal stress and MC-E on maternal and child biological responses (salivary cortisol and testosterone) and child health outcome in mother-child dyads of preschool children (3-5.9 years) in a low socioeconomic setting.


Methods: Observational and biobehavioral data were collected from 50 mother-child dyads in a preschool setting. Assessments included maternal stress with the Perceived Stress Scale, child health outcomes with the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory, and MC-E with videotaped mother-child interactions and scored with the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale. Morning and evening saliva samples were collected from mother and child for biological assays.


Results: Maternal stress was negatively correlated with MC-E (r = -.32, p < .05) and child health outcome (r = -.33, p < .05). Lower levels of MC-E predicted higher morning cortisol (p = .02) and higher morning and bedtime testosterone levels in children (p = .03 and p = .04, respectively). Child biological responses did not predict child health outcome.


Discussion: Maternal stress and MC-E during mother-child interactions play a significant role in the regulation of child stress physiology and child health outcome. Elevated cortisol and testosterone related to high maternal stress and low MC-E may increase the child's vulnerability to negative health outcomes-if sustained. More biobehavioral research is needed to understand how parent-child interactions affect child development and health outcomes in early childhood.