Unlocking the Black Box: A Multilevel Analysis of Preadolescent Children’s Coping

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


This random assignment experimental study examined the intersection of children’s coping and physiologic stress reactivity and recovery patterns in a sample of preadolescent boys and girls. A sample of 82 fourth-grade and fifth-grade (Mage = 10.59 years old) child–parent dyads participated in the present study. Children participated in the Trier Social Stress Test and were randomly assigned to one of two post–Trier Social Stress Test experimental coping conditions—behavioral distraction or cognitive avoidance. Children’s characteristic ways of coping were examined as moderators of the effect of experimental coping condition on cortisol reactivity and recovery patterns. Multilevel modeling analyses indicated that children’s characteristic coping and experimental coping condition interacted to predict differential cortisol recovery patterns. Children who characteristically engaged in primary control engagement coping strategies were able to more quickly down-regulate salivary cortisol when primed to distract themselves than when primed to avoid, and vice versa. The opposite pattern was true for characteristic disengagement coping in the context of coping condition, suggesting that regulatory fit between children’s characteristic ways of coping and cues from their coping environment may lead to more and less adaptive physiologic recovery profiles. This study provides some of the first evidence that coping “gets under the skin” and that children’s characteristic ways of coping may constrain or enhance a child’s ability to make use of environmental coping resources.

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