Family contexts and physiological stress in children

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Dr. Kammi Schmeer, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Assistant Professor

Statement of Objectives and Significance to Population and Health Research

The goal of this research is to increase our understanding of the links between physiological stress and social environments during childhood. Physiological stress is a critical population health issue to study, particularly in childhood when social environments may begin to affect individuals biologically in ways that are not yet apparent in health and development outcomes, and when altered stress response systems may set individuals on paths to later health problems. Although research is limited, biomarkers of stress have been associated with lower insulin sensitivity (a precursor to diabetes) (Adam et al., 2010), lower height-for-age, increased likelihood of asthma (Dowd, Zajacova, & Aiello, 2009), higher cardiovascular risk factors, and lower cognitive development (Blair et al., 2011) in children. These recent findings suggest that inequalities in physiological stress may be important markers of the origins of health and development disparities in childhood and require further study at the population level.
 
In addition to population health research, this study contributes to family demography by considering various aspects of family contexts that may be linked with stress in children. Children’s family environments have changed dramatically over the past 40 years in the U.S. and are increasingly implicated in the development of health disparities. Currently, 41% of children are born to unwed mothers (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2010), 40% are likely to live in cohabiting parent families before age 12 (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008), and many faced with experiencing multiple changes in maternal partnerships (Raley & Wildsmith, 2004), high rates of residential mobility, and the presence of half-siblings in the household (Cancian, Meyer, & Cook, 2011). Having a residential grandparent is an increasingly important aspect of family structure to consider: it is estimated that 1 in 11 U.S. children (1 in 5 black children) will live in non-parental kinship care (mostly grandparents) for at least three months before age 18 (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012), and the number of children living with grandparents has increased among all racial/ethnic groups (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). Amidst this significant shift in children’s family contexts, research has assessed how parental union status and transitions are associated with child well-being. It is now generally concluded that children have better developmental outcomes in married, biological-parent households than in other family structures (Amato, 2005; Brown, 2010); and, that child health is better in two married-parent families than other family structures (Bramlett & Blumberg, 2007; Wen, 2008). Instability may also play a role in children’s physical health, as research suggests that the separation of unmarried parents increases the risk of asthma (Liu & Heiland, 2007), and parental marital dissolution contributes to worse overall health (Bzostek & Beck, 2011) and increased risk of obesity (Schmeer, 2012) in young children.
 
We know less about how these diverse and changing family contexts affect stress in children. Most research related to physiological markers of stress in children has focused on traumatic family environments such as past institutional care in developing countries (Drury et al., 2012), high family conflict/abuse, or neglectful parenting (Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). Empirical evidence from mostly convenience samples and lab-based assessments suggests that children exposed to risky family contexts have either unusually high or unusually low physiological stress responses (Ashman, Dawson, Panagiotides, Yamada, & Wilkinson, 2002; Cicchetti, Rogosch, Gunnar, & Toth, 2010; Essex et al., 2011; Sturge-AppleDavies, Cicchetti, & Manning, 2012). However, it is not yet clear how the current family structure and instability environment faced by U.S. children today may work to create inequalities in children’s physiological stress levels, and further exacerbate health and development disparities across family structures.
 
To address this gap, this research aims to improve our understanding of the links among family contexts, children’s physiological stress levels, and health and development inequalities. Understanding the extent to which increasingly diverse and unstable family environments are associated with chronic stress in children, and delineating pathways linking family structure, stress and child outcomes, are important next steps in family demography and child health research. This research will advance efforts to identify and ameliorate the social causes of child health disparities, a critical national health goal for the coming decade (Healthy People 2020).
 

Publications resulting from this seed grant:

 
Schmeer, Kammi K., Aimee J. Yoon. 2016. “Home Sweet Home? Home Physical Environment and Inflammation in Children.” Social Science Research, 60, 236-248. 
 
Schmeer, Kammi K., Aimee Yoon. 2016. “Socioeconomic Status Inequalities in Low-Grade Inflammation during Childhood.” Archives of Disease in Childhood, 101(11) 1043-1047.