Mother-Child Coregulation of Parasympathetic Processes Differs by Child Maltreatment Severity and Subtype

Child Maltreat. 2018 Aug;23(3):211-220. doi: 10.1177/1077559517751672. Epub 2018 Jan 11.


Parasympathetic processes appear to underlie maladaptive parent-child interactions in maltreating families, but it is unknown whether parent-child coregulation of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) differs by child maltreatment severity and subtype. RSA coregulation in maltreating and nonmaltreating mother-child dyads ( N = 146; age 3-5 years) during two dyadic tasks was analyzed using dynamic time series modeling. Nonmaltreating dyads showed positive RSA concordance but maltreating dyads (when examined as one group) did not. However, when examined separately by subtype, physically abusive dyads showed positive concordance and neglectful dyads no concordance, in dyadic RSA. Patterns were further modified by maltreatment severity, which predicted discordant RSA (one partner's RSA predicting decreases in the other's) in both groups. Specifically, higher physical abuse severity predicted lower resting child RSA, declining mother RSA over time, and mother RSA predicting declines in child RSA over time, suggesting a mother-driven dyadic stress response. Higher neglect severity predicted increasing child RSA over time and child RSA predicting declines in mother RSA over time, suggesting a child-driven maternal stress response. These findings show there are distinct patterns of RSA coregulation in nonmaltreating, physically abusive, and neglectful mother-child dyads, which may inform etiology and intervention with respect to stress regulation in maltreating families.

Keywords: neglect; parent–child relationships; physical abuse; physiological processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Child Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System
  • Problem Behavior
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia / physiology*
  • Severity of Illness Index*