Effects of stress on 6- and 7-year-old children’s emotional memory differs by gender

Laurel Raffington, Johanne Falck, Christine Heim, Mara Mather and Yee Lee Shing

Understanding effects of emotional valence and stress on children’s memory is important for educational and legal contexts. This study disentangled the effects of emotional content of to-be-remembered information (i.e., items differing in emotional valence and arousal), stress exposure, and associated cortisol secretion on children’s memory. We also examined whether girls’ memory is more affected by stress induction. A total of 143 6- and 7-year-old children were randomly allocated to the Trier Social Stress Test for Children (n = 103) or a control condition (n = 40). At 25 min after stressor onset, children incidentally encoded 75 objects varying in emotional valence (crossed with arousal) together with neutral scene backgrounds. We found that response bias corrected memory was worse for low-arousing negative items than for neutral and positive items, with the latter two categories not being different from each other. Whereas boys’ memory was largely unaffected by stress, girls in the stress condition showed worse memory for negative items, especially the low-arousing ones, than girls in the control condition. Girls, compared with boys, reported higher subjective stress increases following stress exposure and had higher cortisol stress responses. Whereas a higher cortisol stress response was associated with better emotional memory in girls in the stress condition, boys’ memory was not associated with their cortisol secretion. Taken together, our study suggests that 6- and 7-year-old children, more so girls, show memory suppression for negative information. Girls’ memory for negative information, compared with that of boys, is also more strongly modulated by stress experience and the associated cortisol response.

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J Exp Child Psychol. 199:104924 (2020)


arousalchildrencorstisol secretionemotional memorygenderstress
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