Stressful experiences and conditions in childhood influence the health and well-being of the growing individual, and can also confer a long-lasting impact into adult life. Delineating the social, mental and biological aspects of stress in children and adolescents is therefore of great concern for human beings. Despite these notions, much knowledge is lacking regarding stress in childhood.
This thesis aimed at examining diverse aspects of stress in children and adolescents: associations between social conditions, traumatic life events, mental health, and salivary cortisol as a measure of the activity of a major physiological stress system. Cross-sectional samples included two non-clinical samples of school-aged children (N=240-336) and adolescents (N =400), and two clinical samples of children with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (N =23) and adolescents who had experienced childhood abuse (N =15). Main measures were salivary cortisol sampled three times a day, and questionnaires to teachers, parents and children with questions about each child’s mental health, traumatic life events and about the socioeconomic situation of the parents.
The main findings include observation of 1) higher cortisol levels in children with a moderate level of psychosocial burden (low socioeconomic status, immigrant family, social impairment of mental health problems), 2) higher cortisol levels in children with OCD who also displayed a tendency to decreasing cortisol in the face of an acute stressor, and 3) cortisol was positively related to mental health problems in abused adolescents. Furthermore, the deleterious effect of 4) traumatic events involving a social dimension, interpersonal traumas, and 5) cumulative traumatic events, polytraumatization, on the mental health of children and adolescents was indicated.
The findings are discussed with respect to the complex interactions between social, mental and biological aspects of children and adolescents. The consequences of adverse experiences in childhood may represent pathways to future health problems. Consideration of the social circumstances in childhood might in the future guide public health policies and the identification of target groups for preventive interventions as well as leading to improvements in treatment for children exposed to severe stress.
Linköping: Linköping University , 2008. , 138 p.