The relations between parenting and both children’s RSA regulation and coregulation are unclear. Although some studies have found no relation between parenting and changes in children’s RSA, other work posits that positive parenting is associated with greater RSA withdrawal while harsh parenting is related to less RSA withdrawal. Both positive and harsh parenting have been related to stronger coregulation. To clarify these associations, we examined the relations between positive and harsh parenting with coregulation and children’s RSA regulation using dynamic analytic methods.
Method: Mothers and their preschoolers (Mage = 41 months, N = 47) completed a free play task. We collected parent and child heart rate and respiration to calculate their RSA in 30-second epochs. We used the frequency of maternal directives as a measure of positive parenting. Additionally, we used a composite of harsh parenting previously associated with parent-child behavioral coregulation (Lunkenheimer et al., 2017). Using multilevel coupled autoregressive models, we assessed whether maternal directives and harsh parenting predicted changes in child RSA and coregulation of parent and child RSA across the task.
Results: Higher levels of harsh parenting were associated with augmentation of children’s RSA, whereas directives were unrelated to changes in child RSA. Harsh parenting also had a significant negative association with average child RSA. With regard to physiological coregulation, the frequency of directives was significantly positively related to coregulation: more directives was related to a positive effect of parent RSA on concurrent child RSA. Harsh parenting was unrelated to coregulation.
Conclusions: Harsh parenting was related to child RSA augmentation during free play, a pattern usually associated with providing support for social engagement and emotion regulation during social challenge. In this context, children’s RSA regulation might reflect needed mobilization of resources for parent-child interactions. A greater use of positive parenting was associated with stronger coregulation between parent and child. Positive parenting may be especially salient for coregulation, whereas harsh parenting may affect child RSA regulation.