Emma Adam

Professor of Human Development and Social Policy


A developmental psychologist, Emma Adam has been with Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy since 2000. She is interested in how everyday life factors such as work, school, family, and peer relationships influence levels of stress, health, and well-being in parents and their children. She is trying to trace the pathways by which stress "gets under the skin" to contribute to poor health and affect children's behavioral, academic, and emotional development. By using noninvasive methods such as measurement of the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol, she is studying how children and parents react to stress, as well as exploring how adolescents' daily experiences, stress hormone regulation, and sleep habits influence their everyday functioning as well as their health and well-being as they become adults.

Adam is a member of the Society for Research in Child Development, the Society of Research on Adolescence, and the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology. In addition to conducting multiple research projects supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Adam's research has been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation. Adam received the  Curt Richter Award from the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2013 for her research, including her paper "Prospective Associations Between the Cortisol Awakening Response and Social Phobia Onsets in Older Adolescents and Young Adults Over a Six-Year Follow-Up."

Current Research

Daily Experiences, Stress and Sleep over the Transition to Adulthood. In this 10-year longitudinal study, funded by NIH and the William T. Grant Foundation, Adam explores the implications of differences in stress exposure for the development of depression and anxiety in adolescents as they leave high school and move into college and work experiences. Life events interviews, questionnaires and diaries capture changes in adolescents' experiences over this transition. Cortisol stress-hormone measurement, as well as objective measurement of sleep quality (wrist-watch sized "actigraphs") trace the impact of these changes on adolescents' physiology. Yearly clinical interviews assess symptoms and diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorder. Adam is examining whether differences in stress-exposure, stress hormone levels, and sleep quality help us to understand which adolescents remain emotionally healthy and which develop depression and anxiety disorders as they negotiate the transition to adulthood. Results suggest that interpersonal stressors and obtaining fewer hours of sleep are associated with alterations in stress hormone patterns across the day, and greater risk for depression. Results also show that, after accounting for the effects of life events, individuals with higher surges in stress hormones in the morning hours are at increased risk of depression over the next two and a half years, and onsets of anxiety disorder over the next four years.

Social Influences on Early Adult Stress Biomarkers. In this NIH-funded project, Adam, in collaboration with Thomas McDade, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Thomas Cook and Greg Duncan, is utilizing the nationally representative Add Health study to examine whether stressors experienced during the adolescent and adult years are predictive of stress-related biomarkers in young adulthood. In particular, the project aims to examine whether changes in stress-related biomarkers as a result of chronic stress may help to explain the emergence of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic health disparities. A number of findings have emerged, including that exposure to adverse relationship events in adolescence, including loneliness, loss, low parent warmth, exposure to violence in a romantic relationship, and romantic relationship instability are associated with worse mental and physical health outcomes in early adulthood. In addition, measures of positive well-being in adolescence (including positive mood, high self esteem and optimism), predict better health behaviors and young adult health, above and beyond the effects of depression and a wide range of other demographic and adolescent health covariates.

Histories of Perceived Discrimination and Health. In a project funded by an NIH Grand Opportunities award, Adam and colleagues are examining 20 years of prospective data, gathered from adolescence through young adulthood, to understand how histories of exposure to perceived racial/ethnic discrimination relate to a newly gathered set of biomarkers of stress and health in young adulthood. Detailed information on exposure to race-related and nonrace-related stressors, as well as measures family functioning, and racial/ethnic identity and coping are available over a 20-year period. These are being related to a wide range of stress-sensitive biological measures in young adulthood, including measures of gene expression relevant to the regulation of biological stress. Additionally, the study included a seven-day diary study examining how current perceptions of daily discrimination relate to cortisol stress hormone levels and sleep quality, and an experimental protocol examining degree of physiological reactivity to race-related stress. Results indicate that a cumulative developmental history of higher perceived discrimination is associated with flatter cortisol diurnal rhythms and lower overall cortisol levels in early adulthood, which are indicators of chronic stress, and that experiences of discrimination during adolescence have particularly strong effects on adult stress biology. In addition, histories of discrimination help to explain racial-ethnic disparities in cortisol rhythms. 

Cities Stress and Learning Study. In an NIH-funded study involving 300-plus Chicago Public School Students between ages 11 and 18, Adam and her collaborators Kathy Grant from DePaul University, and IPR psychologist Edith Chen, are validating a new comprehensive measure of adolescent stress and examining associations adolescent stress exposure and a wide range of emotional, health and academic outcomes. One area of particular focus for Adam is examining associations between stress, stress hormones, sleep, and executive functioning, measured with computer tasks in the laboratory setting and in the home during the course of a four-day diary study. Variations in executive function will also be linked to adolescent health and academic outcomes.

Stress and Testing Study. In a study funded by the Spencer Foundation, Adam along with several collaborators including IPR director David Figlio and IPR graduate student Jennifer Heissel, are examining how children respond biologically to the stress of standardized testing.  Heissel, Adam and Figlio will examine whether children’s stress hormone levels are elevated during high stakes standardized testing time periods, as compared to non-test and low-stakes testing time periods.  They will also examine whether non-school based stressors (e.g. neighborhood stress) affect children’s stress hormones, and whether they exacerbate the effects of school-based stress. Finally, they will test whether stress hormone levels predict students’ academic performance and emotional wellbeing.

Selected Publications

DeSantis, A., E. Adam, and C. Kuzawa. Forthcoming. Developmental origins of flatter diurnal cortisol rhythms: Association of socioeconomic status with cortisol in young adults. American Journal of Human Biology.

Frost, A., L.T. Hoyt, A. Chung, and E. Adam. 2015. Daily life with depressive symptoms: Gender differences in adolescents' everyday emotional experiences. Journal of Adolescence 43: 132-141.

Adam, E., S. Vrshek-Schallhorn, A. Kendall, S. Mineka, R. Zinbarg, and M. Craske. 2014. Prospective associations between the cortisol awakening response and first onsets of anxiety disorders over a six-year follow-up. Psychoneuroendocrinology 44: 47–59. 2013 Curt Richter Award Winner.

Pendry, P., and E. Adam 2013. Child-related interparental conflict in infancy predicts child cognitive functioning in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Child and Family Studies 22(4):502–15.

Sweet, E., A. Nandi, E. Adam, and T. McDade 2013. The high price of debt: Household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science and Medicine 91:94–100.

Adam, E. 2012. Emotion-cortisol transactions occur over multiple time scales in development: Implications for research on emotion and the development of emotional disorders. In Physiological Measures of Emotion from a Developmental Perspective: State of the Science, ed. T. Dennis, K. Buss, and P. Hastings. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 77(2): 17–27.

Gunnar, M., and E. Adam. 2012. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system and emotion: Current wisdom and future directions. In Physiological Measures of Emotion from a Developmental Perspective: State of the Science, ed. T. Dennis, K. Buss, and P. Hastings. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 77(2): 109–19.

Trawalter, S., E. Adam, P. L. Chase-Lansdale, and J. Richeson. 2012. Concerns about appearing prejudiced get under the skin: Stress responses to interracial contact in the moment and across time. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48(3): 682–93.

Adam, E., L. T. Hoyt, and D. Granger. 2011. Diurnal alpha amylase patterns in adolescents: Associations with puberty and with momentary mood states. Biological Psychology 88:170–73.

Adam, E., L. Chyu, L. Hoyt, L. Doane, J. Boisjoly, G. Duncan, L. Chase-Lansdale, and T. McDade. 2011. Adverse adolescent relationship histories and young adult health: Cumulative effects of loneliness, low parental support, relationship instability, intimate partner violence and lossJournal of Adolescent Health 49(3): 278–86 (NIHMS 260479).

Ludwig, J., L. Sanbonmatsu, L. Gennetian, E. Adam, G. Duncan, et al. 2011. Neighborhoods, obesity, and diabetes—A randomized social experiment. New England Journal of Medicine 365(16): 1509–19.

Adam, E., L. Doane, R. Zinbarg, S. Mineka, M. Craske, and J. Griffith. 2010. Prospective prediction of major depressive disorder from diurnal cortisol patterns in late adolescence. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35(6):921–31.

Adam, E., and M. Kumari. 2009. Assessing salivary cortisol in large-scale, epidemiological research. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34(10): 1423–36.

Adam, E., J. Sutton, L. Doane, and S. Mineka. 2008. Incorporating HPA-axis measures into preventative interventions for adolescent depression: Are we there yet? Development and Psychopathology 20(3): 975–1001.

Adam, E., E. Snell, and P. Pendry. 2007. Sleep timing and quantity in ecological and family context: A nationally representative time-diary study. Special issue on Sleep and Family Processes. Journal of Family Psychology 21(1): 4–19.

Adam, E., L. Hawkley, B. Kudielka, and J. Cacioppo. 2006. Day-to-day dynamics of experience-cortisol associations in a population-based sample of older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:17058–63.

Adam, E. 2006. Transactions among trait and state emotion and adolescent diurnal and momentary cortisol activity in naturalistic settings. Psychoneuroendocrinology 31(5): 664–79.

Adam, E. 2004. Beyond quality: Parental and residential stability and children's adjustment. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13(5): 210–13.

Adam, E., M. Gunnar, and A. Tanaka. 2004. Adult attachment, parent emotion, and observed parenting behavior: Mediator and moderator models. Child Development 75:(1): 110–22.