This study explores the relationship between poverty and children’s chronic stress, and the mediating role of parenting and family environments.

Children from highly disadvantaged families tend to perform more poorly than their better-off peers in multiple cognitive and non-cognitive domains. Recent psychological and neuroscientific research has found that the relationship between low socioeconomic status (SES), family environments and children’s development is affected by children’s exposure to chronic stress.

The study involved 60 families with children aged between 2 and 7. Participant families provided details of their socioeconomic characteristics, as well as the family environment and parenting practices. Children and their mothers also provided a hair sample for a cortisol assay. Hair cortisol concentration has been validated as a measure of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, and is associated with the level of chronic stress children are exposed to.

Data from our sample will be used to study the associations between socioeconomic disadvantage, parent–child relationships and children’s levels of chronic stress. We hypothesise that exposure to disadvantage in early childhood will be associated with higher levels of stress in children, as measured by hair cortisol. We also hypothesise, consistent with the literature on child development, that the quality of parenting and children’s family environment will be associated with child stress. We aim to identify the specific dimensions of parenting and parent–child relationships that are associated with child stress in the context of socioeconomic disadvantage.

The study involved collaboration between the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Melbourne Institute for Social Equity and the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute, both at the University of Melbourne.