Public Release: 

UC Davis team measures stress in Mexican-origin families in California

Assessing up to 250 families in Sacramento area over 5 years

University of California - Davis

University of California, Davis, researchers are weighing the daily challenges and stresses that affect young parents and babies of Mexican origin in California in a new study.

The research, funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, could improve the well-being of thousands of families in this growing yet underserved population. Leah Hibel, an associate professor with the Department of Human Ecology who is leading the five-year experiment, and her team are working with up to 250 families in the greater Sacramento area. They are periodically assessing stress hormones and charting participants' emotions.

"We want to better understand how stress affects daily parent-child interactions, and how that influences a child's physical and mental health and school readiness," said Hibel.

"We are studying how financial pressures, marital challenges, discrimination and fear of deportation affect parents and their babies, as well as the factors that contribute to resilience."

More than half of the people in California are Latino, and 82 percent of the state's Latino population is of Mexican origin. Despite these numbers, scientists know very little about the social and emotional development of Mexican-origin children, Hibel said.

The study will focus on self-regulation, which is the ability to control thoughts and feelings and manage upsets. Children usually learn self-regulation through healthy interactions with parents. But stressors like poverty and marital discord can undermine parenting and affect a child's mental and physical health.

"Good self-regulation is especially critical for children living in high-stress environments because it helps them cope with and overcome adversity," Hibel said.

Parents will be asked to respond to questions about their child's emotions and behaviors, as well as their own, multiple times a day. The surveys will take place for two weeks at a time at four stages of the children's lives -- at 6 months, 18 months, 3 years and 4 years.

Researchers will monitor sleep patterns as well as measure the stress hormone cortisol through saliva that parents collect from their children and themselves. The cortisol levels can be assessed alongside diary entries to determine what is happening in the family at the time.

"Mexican-origin children are disproportionately exposed to stressors like poverty, violence and discrimination," Hibel said. "Deportations are on the rise. It's important to understand the experiences that contribute to both stress and resilience in families of Mexican origin so we can tailor interventions to address their specific needs."

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