Discrete Emotion Regulation Strategy Repertoires and Parasympathetic Physiology Characterize Psychopathology Symptoms in Childhood

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Abstract

Certain psychopathologies are often linked to dysregulation of specific emotions (e.g., anxiety is associated with dysregulation of fear), but few studies have examined how regulatory repertoires for specific emotions (e.g., the strategies a person uses to regulate fear) relate to psychopathology, and fewer still have examined this in childhood. A total of 106 7- to 11-year-olds (M = 9.37 years; SD = 1.30; 44% girls) participated in a multimethod investigation of emotion regulation and psychopathology. Parents reported on family characteristics and children’s symptoms. Resting parasympathetic function (respiratory sinus arrhythmia; RSA) was measured to assess physiological regulation. Children were interviewed about past experiences that made them feel anger, fear, and sadness, and reported what they had done to make themselves feel better in each emotion context. The strategies children described were summed to create an emotion regulation strategy repertoire measure for each emotion. Children’s resting RSA interacted with age to predict externalizing symptoms, such that low resting RSA was associated with more externalizing symptoms for younger children only. In contrast, the link between RSA and anxiety was qualified by both strategy repertoire for fear and age, such that higher resting RSA was most strongly associated with fewer anxiety symptoms for older children with larger strategy repertoires for fear. Contrary to our expectations, neither resting RSA nor strategy repertoire for sadness related to children’s depressive symptoms. Findings underscore the importance of considering children’s discrete emotion regulation strategy repertoires to more fully characterize the dysregulated affective processes associated with psychopathology in childhood.

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