Marital Conflict and Trajectories of Adolescent Adjustment: The Role of Autonomic Nervous System Coordination

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The present study investigates how coordination between stress responsivity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) moderates the prospective effects of marital conflict on internalizing and externalizing symptoms across adolescence. Although an important avenue for psychophysiological research concerns how PNS and SNS responses jointly influence adjustment in the context of stress, these processes have rarely been studied in adolescence or longitudinally. Participants were 252 youth (53% female, 66% European American, 34% African American) who participated in laboratory assessments when they were 16, 17, and 18 years old. PNS activity (measured via respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]) and SNS activity (measured via skin conductance level [SCL]) were assessed during a resting baseline and in response to a laboratory-based challenge (star tracing). Parents and adolescents both reported on marital conflict and adolescents reported on their internalizing and externalizing symptoms. At higher levels of marital conflict, coactivation of PNS and SNS activity, characterized by increased RSA and increased SCL from baseline to challenge, predicted elevated internalizing symptoms and an increase in externalizing behavior across adolescence. Coinhibition, or decreased activity across both systems, also predicted an increase in internalizing symptoms over time. At lower levels of marital conflict, internalizing and externalizing symptoms were relatively low. Findings extend primarily cross-sectional work with younger children by demonstrating that coordination between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) moderates the longitudinal effects of marital conflict on psychological and behavioral maladjustment among adolescents.

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