Zeroing in on Teen Stress with Better Measures

New assessments aim to capture different sources of stressors


All parents know that stress affects their kids—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Yet we have little information about the specific ways in which this happens, mainly because comprehensive measures of adolescent stress still need to be developed.

“Most stress measures don’t quite capture all the different sources of stress in adolescents’ lives, including poverty, discrimination, and neighborhood stress, as well as family, peer, and academic stressors,” said IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam, whose many projects are zeroing in on exactly how daily and long-term stress affect children and teens.

In the Cities' Stress and Learning Project with Kathryn Grant of DePaul University and IPR psychologist Edith Chen, Adam is developing a new comprehensive measure of adolescent stress and then implementing it in a study involving more than 300 Chicago middle and high school students. The National Institutes of Health supports the project.

“By cataloging the many sources of stress in adolescents’ lives, developing better measures of them, and linking them to multiple outcomes, we hope to understand which sources of stress and which combinations of stressors are most toxic for adolescents,” Adam said.

Their assessment battery integrates student and parent questionnaires, one-on-one interviews, daily diary entries, and objective measures of sleep and stress biology. Much of this measurement is being carried out during a full day of on-site testing with the adolescents, but the effects of everyday stress on daily functioning are also captured in a four-day diary study for a subset of the youth.

Emma Adam

Adam is particularly interested in understanding links between teens’ stress and academic performance by examining what types of stressors trigger stress hormones, and in turn, how stress hormones affect cognitive functioning. To test this, she employed a tool that was very popular with her teen research participants—iPads and iPods. Adam first tested cognitive functioning using an iPad-based application in the lab. She then sent iPods home with teens to test their cognitive functioning each morning at home, to see how the stressors of the day before affect their stress hormones, sleep, and cognition the next morning.

“In tracing the pathways between stress, stress hormones, sleep, and cognitive functioning we hope to better understand how racial and socioeconomic disparities emerge in health and academic achievement,” Adam said.

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.