Maternal Executive Function, Heart Rate, and EEG Alpha Reactivity Interact in the Prediction of Harsh Parenting

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Do physiological and behavioral performance indicators of effortful cognitive self-regulation converge additively or interactively in their statistical prediction of individual differences in harsh parenting? To answer this question, we examined heart rate (HR) and electroencephalography alpha (α) reactivity during executive function (EF) tasks, along with observed and self-reported indicators of harsh parenting. A socioeconomically diverse sample of 115 mothers with 3- to 7-year-old children completed questionnaires and a laboratory visit. Three quarters of the mothers showed typical patterns of task reactivity that were interpretable (i.e., increases in HR and decreases in α). Among them, we found no evidence to suggest that variance in harsh parenting was associated with magnitude of HR or α reactivity independently. Instead, the physiological variables interacted to enhance the EF statistical effect. EF explained one third of the variance in harsh parenting among mothers showing the largest α decreases when accompanied by modest to moderate (rather than substantial) HR increases. Physiological indicators can clarify the role and estimation of the strength of the effect of direct behavioral measures of cognitive regulation in the etiology of harsh parenting behaviors.

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