The Psychophysiology of Parenting: Individual Differences in Autonomic Reactivity to Positive and Negative Mood Inductions and Observed Parental Affect During Dyadic Interactions With Children

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Parenting is a complex activity driven, in part, by parental emotional and physiological responses. However, work examining the physiological underpinnings of parenting behavior is still in its infancy, and very few studies have examined such processes beyond early childhood. The current study examines associations between Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) indices of parents’ physiological reactivity to positive and negative mood states and observed parental affect during a series of discussion tasks with their adolescent child. Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) was measured as an index of parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation while viewing film clips designed to induce neutral, sad, and amused mood states. Parental positive affect, anger, and distress were observed during a series of parent–child discussion tasks, which included an ambiguous discussion regarding adolescent growth, a conflict discussion, and a fun-activity planning discussion. Results supported the association between aspects of parental physiological reactivity and observed affect during dyadic interactions. Further, RSA interacted with maternal depression to predict observed positive affect, anger, and distress, although differences across tasks and specific emotions were found regarding the nature of the interaction effects. Overall, results suggest that such neurobiological processes may be particularly important predictors of parental behavior, particularly in at-risk populations.

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