Personality and Stress
by Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH
When parents fight, children suffer. Research has shown that exposure to repeated aggression between parents is a significant stressor for children.
How this stress affects an individual child depends, at least to some extent, on the child’s personality. If your child is a “dove,” he’s more cautious and submissive when confronting new environments. If your child is a “hawk,” she’s more likely to be bold and assertive in unfamiliar settings.
According to the results of a new study,* these basic personality characteristics are linked to very different hormonal responses to stress, and these differences could provide children with advantages for navigating threatening environments.
These different reactions are believed to be an evolutionary response to stress that might have provided our ancestors with adaptive survival advantages. For example, a dove’s ability to comply might work better in some challenging family conditions, while having the aggression of a hawk could be a major asset in other stressful family situations. This perspective, say the researchers, provides an important rebuttal to the prevailing idea in psychology that there’s only one “healthy” way of dealing with stressors.
To understand the role of stress in children’s reactions, researchers focused on parental conflict in young families that included more than 200 two-year-olds. The researchers also documented the dove or hawk tendencies of the toddlers in a variety of unfamiliar situations. Children who showed dovish tendencies were vigilant and submissive in the face of novelty. The toddlers clung to their mothers, cried, or froze when encountering new surroundings. Hawks used bold, aggressive, and dominating strategies for coping with challenge. They fearlessly explored unknown objects and new environments.
The researchers studied the children’s reactions to inter-parental aggression expressed in a telephone quarrel. Children identified as doves produced elevated levels of cortisol when their parents fought. Cortisol is a hormone that is believed to increase a person’s sensitivity to stress, and high cortisone levels have been linked to a number of infections and chronic illnesses. Children identified as hawks produced far less cortisol in response to parental fights, indicating a diminished perception of danger and alarm.
This high-and-low-cortisol production in children provides different developmental advantages and disadvantages, the researchers believe. The higher cortisol levels in doves were related to lower attention problems, but it also put them at risk for developing anxiety and depression over time. In the hawks, the lower cortisol levels were associated with fewer anxiety problems, but these children were more likely to develop problems with attention and hyperactivity. They also were more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Whether your child is a hawk or a dove, the stress associated with parental strife can have a long lasting, negative impact. You might not always be able to avoid an argument with your spouse, but there’s a good chance that you can at least keep it out of earshot of your child.
Make a deal with your spouse. Agree that if the two of you need to argue, you’ll do it away from your children. It’ll definitely help keep the peace, and it might just improve the health and happiness of the entire family.
*Patrick T. Davies, Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, Dante Cicchetti. Interparental aggression and children’s adrenocortical reactivity: Testing an evolutionary model of allostatic load. Development and Psychopathology, 2011; 23 (03): 801 DOI: 1