Correlates of Parent-Child Physiological Synchrony and Emotional Parenting: Differential Associations in Varying Interactive Contexts

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Journal of Child and Family Studies




Springer New York LLC

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Objectives Parent-child synchrony during interaction might possess important features that underlie parenting processes throughout development. However, little is known regarding the association between parent-child physiological synchrony and emotional parenting behaviors during middle childhood. The main goal of the study was to examine whether emotional parenting was positively or negatively associated with parent-child physiological synchrony for school-age children. Methods Adopting a biopsychosocial perspective, we incorporated the interbeat interval (IBI) and behavioral observation data of 150 parent-child dyads (child M age = 8.77, SD= 1.80) to explore the patterns of moment-to-moment dyadic physiological synchrony and to investigate whether these patterns were associated with two emotional parenting behaviors (psychological control and psychological unavailability). Results Our findings provided some initial evidence that in low to moderately stressful situations that mimic daily parent-child interaction, parent-child physiological synchrony was indicative of different emotional parenting behaviors in various parent-child interactive situations. Specifically, in the collaborative context (parent-child working together to complete a task), parent-child physiological synchrony was indicative of less psychological unavailability, whereas in the competitive context (parent-child resolving disagreement with each other), parent-child physiological synchrony was indicative of less psychological control. The study implications and future research directions are discussed. Conclusions Overall, our findings suggested that dyadic physiological synchrony, indexed by parent-child moment-to-moment matching of IBI, was associated with fewer negative emotional parenting behaviors. The last decade has witnessed a shift in parenting research such that the field has become increasingly interested in the biopsychosocial perspective that encompasses not only the behavioral but also the physiological dimensions of parent-child dyads (Feldman 2012a, 2012b; Repetti et al. 2002). Conforming to this trend in parenting research, the current study considered both the physiological and behavioral aspects of parenting and examined whether emotional parenting behaviors captured in parent-child interaction were associated with moment-to-moment parent-child physiological synchrony for children in their middle childhood. Synchrony has been proposed as a construct to capture the mutuality and reciprocity of dyadic interaction (Harrist and Waugh 2002). Parent-child synchrony has been frequently used to represent the quality of parent-child interactions by providing a concrete and continuous description of the overarching process that coordinates the exchanges of hormonal, behavioral, and physiological stimuli between parent and child during social contact. Dyadic synchrony occurs as early as in infancy with the emergence of symbolic exchanges between parent and child (Feldman 2012a). Over repeated family contact within day-to-day experience, each member of the bonding relationship develops appropriate sensitivities and responses to various cues during interaction (Fleming et al. 1999). This coordination of behavioral and biological cue-exchange processes leads to the formation of selective and enduring attachment (Feldman 2012a) and might continuously take effect on the child across development (Graham et al. 2017). Although parent-child synchrony represents processes that incorporate both behavioral and biological stimuli, research used to predominantly focus on the behavioral aspects, such as joint attention, shared affect, and co-occurred body movement (e.g., Feldman and Eidelman 2004; for a review, see Harrist and Waugh 2002). Only recently have empirical studies begun to pay more attention to the physiological aspects of parent-child interaction, aiming to capture the synchronous characteristics of the dyadic exchange beyond the behavioral level (Suveg et al. 2016). Many indicators have been adopted to assess physiological synchrony. For example, mother-infant dyads showed coordinated heart rhythms during face-to-face interactions as early as during the first three months of the infant’s life (Feldman et al. 2011). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), another critical measure of vagal tone, was found to be coordinated between school-age children and their mothers (Woody et al. 2016). Regardless of which indicator is considered, physiological synchrony seems common in parent-child dyads during interaction across developmental stages and might have important implications for parenting (Feldman 2012a). In infancy, parental behaviors, shaped by the parent’s physiology and emotional states, are the only phenomenon directly available to the infants during interaction and thus are believed to predict parent-child physiological synchrony (Feldman 2012a). For this reason, researchers have suggested that parents’ physiological systems can influence infants’ biological organization of bonding with their parents through parenting (see Feldman 2012a for a review). Although physiological synchrony between parents and their children could occur at various stages of child development beyond infancy (Clearfield et al. 2014), few investigations have gone beyond infancy to target parenting and parent-child physiological synchrony in middle childhood (Woltering et al. 2015). However, children in their middle childhood are becoming more independent actors in parent-child interactions (Harrist and Waugh 2002), and we are curious about whether the parent still holds a critical role in the establishment of physiological synchrony between parent-child dyads. Due to the paucity of related research, many researchers have called for more research on this topic in older children to better understand how physiological synchrony operates and relates to parenting behaviors for children well beyond infancy (e.g., Suveg et al. 2016). Unlike the clear association between parenting and parent-child behavioral synchrony for this age group (that positive behavioral synchrony is believed to function as a relationship builder and may motivate parents to engage in more positive parenting; Harrist and Waugh 2002), limited research has directly tested the link between emotional parenting behaviors and parent-child physiological synchrony, and the results have been largely mixed. Although no direct literature is available on the relationship between emotional parenting and parent-child physiological synchrony, several studies on parental characteristics and physiological synchrony suggested that positive family attributes seemed to be associated with greater parent-child physiological synchrony. For example, one study showed that higher socio-economic status (SES) strengthened parent-child physiological synchrony in infancy (Clearfield et al. 2014). Another study found the dyads without histories of maternal major depressive disorder (MDD) displayed more positive RSA concordance than their counterparts with maternal history of MDD during middle childhood (Woody et al. 2016). Additionally, a positive association was demonstrated between physiological synchrony and parental behaviors that might promote parent-child closeness during early adolescence (Papp et al. 2009). Other studies, however, did not find parent-child physiological synchrony a positive indicator of adaptive parenting. For example, Suveg et al. (2016) demonstrated that greater parent-child physiological synchrony was related to more negative interactions between parents and preschoolers, such as emotional and communicative distance, especially under high-risk family contexts. Along a similar vein, Papp et al. (2009) found that parent-child cortisol synchrony was associated with more parental negative affect toward adolescents. These findings seemed to suggest that if one member of the dyad is under stress or experiencing a negative effect, the physiological matching between the parent-child dyads may confer additional risk for maladaptation, so that these dyads may be more likely to engage in negative behavioral interactions (Suveg et al. 2016). These contradictory findings warranted us to come back to a fundamental question on emotional parenting and physiological synchrony—what is the relationship between parent-child synchrony and emotional parenting, especially for children well beyond infancy? Also, although differential indicators have been examined on parent-child physiological synchrony, it has been suggested that rather than investigating the averages of mother and child physiological functioning across specific time intervals (e.g., calculating physiological synchrony every 30 s), it makes more sense to reply on moment-to-moment physiological measures as physiological synchrony takes place in such real-time fashion (Suveg et al. 2016). Interbeat interval (IBI) series data assessing temporal synchrony of autonomic reactivity allows the examination of parent-child physiological synchrony within each second and is considered a more appropriate measurement on this dyadic construct. The main goal of the current study was to examine whether emotional parenting was positively or negatively associated with parent-child physiological synchrony for school-age children using moment-to-moment IBI measures. We targeted the moderate to low stressful situations, mimicking the daily interaction of the majority of parent-child dyads, and targeted the typical emotion-related parenting behaviors, such as psychological unavailability and psychological control. Specifically, we aim to explore the relationship between parenting and parent-child physiological synchrony in middle childhood, after controlling for parental and child gender, child age, and parental and child psychopathological symptoms.

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