Specific parenting behaviours associated with children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviours: Differential susceptibility based on autonomic function & sex

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Salisbury, Marlee
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Parenting quality is robustly associated with the development of psychopathology, yet children’s outcomes can be substantially different despite experiencing similar early caregiving environments. Several factors may underlie broad variability in outcomes linked to parenting, including the child’s sex and physiological markers of behavioural regulation, such as autonomic nervous system (ANS) function. Greater specificity is needed to elucidate how parenting is associated with preschool-age children’s behaviour problems, particularly among children more broadly at risk of maladjustment. Parent-child dyads (N=100) experiencing socioeconomic adversity completed a joint problem-solving task while children’s parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity were indexed via heart rate variability and pre-ejection period, respectively. Specific affective and strategy-oriented parenting behaviours were coded for frequency during the task. Cardiac autonomic balance (CAB) and cardiac autonomic regulation (CAR)—coordinated and opposing action of the PNS and SNS, respectively—were examined as moderators linking parenting to children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviours. Child sex was included as a secondary moderator. Results demonstrated that low levels of parent praise were associated with more externalizing behaviours, specifically for males. Low CAR, or coinhibition of PNS and SNS activity, was related to more externalizing problems. Children with high CAR, or greater coactivation of SNS and PNS activity, displayed the fewest internalizing behaviours in the context of high parental praise. Parents’ more frequent expression of positive emotion was linked to more internalizing behaviours in females. Results support a differential susceptibility theory suggesting that children may be or less sensitive to specific aspects of positive parenting, depending on their sex and autonomic activity.
parenting, preschool, internalizing, externalizing, autonomic nervous system, cardiac autonomic balance, cardiac autonomic regulation