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Stressful events determine adolescents’ temperament

04 September 2013

Stressful events affect the way someone’s temperament develops during adolescence. Adolescents who have experienced stressful events are more frustrated at the age of 16 than at the age of 11. This not only applies to very serious events, but also to an accumulation of milder events that nearly everyone experiences, for example moving house. Adolescents who do not experience stress become less frustrated the older they get. After stressful events, adolescents also have a greater chance of developing psychological disorders such as depression or behavioural problems. This is the result of research conducted by psychologist Odilia Laceulle of the University Medical Center Groningen. She will be awarded a PhD for her thesis by the University of Groningen on 9 September 2013. Her research forms part of the long-term TRAILS (TRacking Adolescents' Individual Lives Survey) project.

Stressful events are known risk factors for the development of psychological disorders. The latter occur more often right from the start of adolescence. This rise, combined with the biological, psychological and social changes that mark adolescence, leads to the question whether adolescence can be regarded as a sensitive period with regard to the influence of stress. Laceulle’s research investigated which types of stress can have this effect and whether stress was the only factor to influence temperament, or whether adolescents with a certain temperament have more chance of experiencing stressful events. She also examined whether some adolescents react more strongly to stressful events than others, and investigated the development of psychological disorders in the long term.

Consequences of stressful events

Laceulle followed groups of adolescents at the age of 11, 16 and 19 via questionnaires and interviews, and during a social stress test in the laboratory at the ages of 16 and 19. Her research reveals that adolescents exposed to stress have a less developed temperament; they are less well able to adapt to and cope with situations. It also turned out that adolescents who experienced stressful events were less well able to regulate their concentration a few years later. At the same time, it also turned out that adolescents who had trouble regulating their concentration had a greater chance of experiencing events as stressful some years later. In addition, adolescents who had experienced stressful events between the ages of 16 and 19 had a different physical reaction to stress than other adolescents; they produced less of the stress hormone cortisol during the stress test in the laboratory.

Psychological disorders

The results of Laceulle’s research reveal that changes in temperament can predict psychological disorders. For example, adolescents who show an increase in frustration have a greater chance of developing a psychological disorder than those who become less frustrated. It also turns out that children and adolescents who have a lot of psychological problems have a greater chance of experiencing stressful events.


The research for this PhD made use of data from TRAILS (TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey). TRAILS is a cohort research project on 2230 adolescents from the north of the Netherlands. These adolescents are interviewed once every 2-3 years, from the age of 11 until they are at least 25 years old.

Curriculum vitae

Odilia Laceulle (Haarlem, 1983) studied Psychology at Utrecht University. She conducted her research at the department of Psychiatry of the UMCG as one of the TRAILS subprojects. Her thesis is entitled ‘Programming effects of adversity on adolescent adaptive capacity’. Her research was partly subsidized by a financial contribution from NWO. After gaining her PhD she will work as a postdoc researcher at the department of Psychiatry of the UMCG and the department of Developmental Psychology of Utrecht University.

Last modified:13 March 2020 02.17 a.m.
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