Parenting young children frequently involves dealing with child distress and emotional dysregulation, a child state that relies almost entirely on parental support for soothing and regulation. The stresses of living in poverty, especially for those families isolated geographically (such as those living in rural areas with less available or accessible resources for poor families), can further exacerbate the difficulties of parenting and jeopardize the socio-emotional development of children. Given this, the proposed project is designed to examine pathways by which community variables such as stress and geographic isolation manage to impact early psychophysiological development of children. The following questions are proposed for analysis: (1) For parents in rural poverty, does chronic exposure to poverty and stress result in a decreased ability to physiologically cope with stressful situations, as evidenced by lower levels of cortisol and a blunted cortisol response to stress? (2) Do decreased levels of cortisol reactivity in caregivers predict parenting behaviors that are atypical and dysregulating to children? (3) Do these atypical parenting behaviors in turn affect children's cortisol levels by exposing their developing stress responses systems to dysregulating and non- soothing parenting? The Family Life Project is an ideal data set for this purpose. This project has demographic, self-report, behavioral, and physiological data on 1292 families in rural North Carolina and Pennsylvania. At 6 and 15 months of child age, primary caregivers and children are observed in free play settings, picture book reading sessions, and during and following a series of challenge tasks for the child. Videotapes of all of these interactions are available for coding atypical maternal behavior as indexed by disrupted affective communication from the AMBIANCE coding system. In addition, salivary cortisol samples at each time point have been collected and assayed for children and caregivers prior to and following the challenge tasks. Very young children's experiences are often limited to interactions within the household. Community poverty and stress affect children by limiting nutritional and health resources, and by influencing the quality of family life they experience. Given that over 20 million children in the United States are living in poverty, it is critical that we understand both the short and the long term consequences of these conditions, including the ways in which poverty exerts its influences at very young ages. Furthermore, there is little to no research on families with young children who live in conditions of rural poverty. The absence of information on these families is particularly troubling considering that most children living in poverty are in non-metro areas. The proposed study is set to investigate this unique, although sizeable, population of American families. ? ? ?

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Small Research Grants (R03)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Pediatrics Subcommittee (CHHD)
Program Officer
Griffin, James
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Organized Research Units
Chapel Hill
United States
Zip Code
Mills-Koonce, W Roger; Garrett-Peters, Patricia; Barnett, Melissa et al. (2011) Father contributions to cortisol responses in infancy and toddlerhood. Dev Psychol 47:388-95