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Dev Psychobiol. 2015 Dec;57(8):994-1003. doi: 10.1002/dev.21323. Epub 2015 May 14.

Coregulation of respiratory sinus arrhythmia between parents and preschoolers: differences by children's externalizing problems.

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Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University, CO.
Oregon Social Learning Center, OR.
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, PA.
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, VA.


The coordination of physiological processes between parents and infants is thought to support behaviors critical for infant adaptation, but we know little about parent-child physiological coregulation during the preschool years. The present study examined whether time-varying changes in parent and child respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) exhibited coregulation (across-person dynamics) accounting for individual differences in parent and child RSA, and whether there were differences in these parasympathetic processes by children's externalizing problems. Mother-child dyads (N = 47; Child age M = 3½ years) engaged in three laboratory tasks (free play, clean up, puzzle task) for 18 min, during which RSA data were collected. Multilevel coupled autoregressive models revealed that mothers and preschoolers showed positive coregulation of RSA such that changes in mother RSA predicted changes in the same direction in child RSA and vice versa, controlling for the stability of within-person RSA over time and individual differences in overall mean RSA. However, when children's externalizing behaviors were higher, coregulation was negative such that changes in real-time mother and child RSA showed divergence rather than positive concordance. Results suggest that mothers and preschoolers do coregulate RSA during real-time interactions, but that children's higher externalizing behavior problems are related to disruptions in these processes.


coregulation; externalizing behavior problems; parasympathetic processes; parent-child interaction; respiratory sinus arrhythmia; self-regulation

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