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, and family 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 non-invasive 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 risk for the development of depression and anxiety disorders as they become adults.

In addition to her Northwestern University affiliations, Adam is a member of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Research in Child Development, the Society for the Study of Human Development, the Society of Research on Adolescence, the American Psychosomatic Society, and the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology. In addition to conducting multiple NIH-funded research projects, Adam is the recipient of a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (2003–04) and received a five-year William T. Grant Scholars Award (2004–09).  

Current Research

Family Stress Study. In this study, part of the Sloan 500 Family Study, Adam explores factors that increase or decrease stress hormone levels in children and parents as they go about their everyday lives. She uses a noninvasive method—measuring the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol in saliva—and daily journal entries to gauge the psychological and physiological states of the mothers, fathers, and children throughout the day. She found that cortisol levels were lower, indicating lower stress levels, when parents felt productive, engaged, and challenged. This frequently occurred at work. Both parents and adolescents had higher stress hormone levels when they felt negative emotions such as worry and anger; adolescents also had higher stress hormone levels at moments they were alone rather than with other people. Kindergarten-aged children had higher stress hormone levels when they lived in a home that had high levels of conflict between parents and low levels of maternal involvement and warmth. Mother and adolescent stress hormone levels were significantly related across the day, especially among families that spend a lot of time together and have many shared activities.

Daily Experiences, Stress and Sleep over the Transition to Adulthood. In this eight 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 alternations in stress hormone patterns across the day. Results also show that, after accounting for the effects of life events on depression, individuals with higher surges in stress hormones in the morning hours are at increased risk of depression one year later over the next two and a half 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, recent findings from graduate student—and former IPR graduate research assistant—Lindsay Till Hoyt, show that measures of positive wellbeing 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. Initial results indicate that both race/ethnicity (African American race) and a cumulative developmental history of higher perceived discrimination are associated with flatter cortisol diurnal rhythms, an indicator of chronic stress, in early adulthood. However, discrimination histories alone do not fully explain racial/ethnic disparities in cortisol.   

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.

Selected Publications

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.