Harsh discipline and behavior problems: The moderating effects of cortisol and alpha-amylase

Frances R. Chen, Adrian Raine, Anna S. Rudo-Hutt, Andrea L. Glenn, Liana Soyfer, Douglas A. Granger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Numerous studies link harsh discipline to adjustment problems in youth, yet not all individuals exposed to harsh discipline develop behavior problems. Contemporary theory suggests that this relationship could be moderated by individual differences in environmentally sensitive biological systems. This study investigated whether the interaction between hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity and autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal moderated the link between harsh discipline and behavior problems. Three saliva samples were collected on a single day from 425 inner city youth (50% male, age 11-12 years, 80% African American) and were later assayed for cortisol (HPA) and alpha-amylase (ANS). Problem behavior was assessed by self- and parent-report using the Child Behavior Checklist. Youth also reported the level of harsh discipline that they experienced. Harsh discipline was positively associated with externalizing and internalizing problems only when there were asymmetrical profiles of HPA activity and ANS arousal. This pattern was evident for boys but not girls. Findings are discussed in relation to prevailing theories suggesting that biological susceptibility translates adversity into risk for behavior problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-27
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychology
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cortisol
  • Externalizing problems
  • Harsh discipline
  • Internalizing problems
  • Salivary alpha-amylase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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