Mother affectionately holding toddler
DigitalSkillet Photography/iStockphoto

Studying the impact of life stress
on human development

Directed by Dr. Marilyn J. Essex, the Life Stress and Human Development Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is focused on the identification of social, psychological, and biological risk factors for child and adolescent mental health problems and, most importantly, understanding how these risk factors work together over time.

Our work is predicated on the premise that the study of early risk factors and developmental pathways to mental health problems requires research that is integrative, interdisciplinary, and longitudinal. This includes consideration of 1) multiple levels and domains of risk and resilience factors; 2) developmental course and changes, including issues of timing and critical periods; and 3) ways that risk and resilience factors work together over time, with attention paid to both moderators and mediators. We also advocate supplementing hypothesis testing with empirically and theoretically driven exploratory studies to guide the formation of strong hypotheses.

Our research draws from medical sociology, developmental psychology, child and adolescent psychiatry, affective neuroscience, and related fields. The majority of our work has been conducted with the more than 500 families participating in the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. Our past and ongoing research has been funded by a variety of sources, including the National Institute of Mental Health, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Psychopathology and Development, and – at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – the Graduate School, School of Medicine and Public Health, Department of Psychiatry, and HealthEmotions Research Institute.