Living in Adversity: How Parenting, Stressful Life Events, and Physiology Affect Child Social Competence

Open Access
Creavey, Kristine Lorain
Graduate Program:
Human Development and Family Studies
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
June 22, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Lisa Michelle Kopp, Thesis Advisor
  • Gregory M Fosco, Thesis Advisor
  • social competence
  • adversity
  • harsh discipline
  • stressful life events
  • respiratory sinus arrhythmia
Low family socioeconomic status is a robust risk factor for adverse child outcomes, yet the mechanisms by which poverty affects child psychopathology must be better understood in order to identify proximal processes that are more practical for intervention and prevention programs to target as risk-modifiers. This study examined indicators of risk across levels of analysis in children residing in a high-risk neighborhood (high rates of poverty and crime), in order to identify factors that exacerbate or attenuate risk. In a sample of 110 kindergarten children, stressful life events, parenting, and physiological regulation were analyzed, promoting a jointly contextual, psychosocial, and biological approach to assessing risk processes. As expected, results indicated that both greater family exposure to life stress harsh discipline were associated with lower social competence in children. In addition, lower resting RSA moderated the association between life stress and social competence; among children with the greatest stress exposure, those with lower resting RSA had lower social competence than those with higher RSA. The moderating effect of RSA on stress exposure was independent of parenting, highlighting individual differences in vulnerability to contexts of macro-risk factors like stressful life events, but not in contexts of micro-risk factors like the parent-child relationship. The main effect of parenting and lack of interaction with physiology suggests parenting is especially salient in this at-risk context. By focusing exclusively on a high-risk sample, these findings have direct implications for prevention programming in the most at-risk contexts.