Physiological Regulation among Caregivers and their Children: Relations with Trauma History, Symptoms, and Parenting Behavior

  • Laurel KiserEmail author
  • Diana Fishbein
  • Lisa Gatzke-Kopp
  • Rebecca Vivrette
  • Kristine Creavey
  • Jennifer Stevenson
  • Deborah Medoff
  • Alex Busuito
Original Paper



Parents have the opportunity to influence the development of their children’s emotion regulation skills in a variety of capacities throughout childhood and into adolescence. Only recently have we begun to explore the physiological nature of this effect and implications for the influence of social factors on individual regulation of emotion in children. Also not well understood is how contextual and experiential factors influence this relationship by impacting emotional regulation skill development in children; e.g., parents’ experiences of trauma, loss, and stress may affect parenting behavior and child emotional and behavioral outcomes. To further advance our understanding, the present pilot study investigated how children, ages 9 to 14 years old, and their primary female caregivers (N = 41 dyads) respond physiologically to affective challenge, experienced both independently and jointly.


Using a community sample, we examined mother and child respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) while viewing a positive and negative video clip (task) either alone or jointly (condition). Further, we explored the influence of self-reported trauma/adversity experiences and symptoms and quality of parenting on RSA response in the dyads.


Results indicate caregiver’s RSA responses were lower across conditions but demonstrated greater increases during the joint sessions than their children. Also, child and caregiver characteristics played a complex role; e.g., caregivers were more likely to increase RSA when with their child if they perceived their child to be suffering greater symptoms of trauma exposure.


Caregivers may be suppressing their own arousal to play a regulatory role for the benefit of their children.


Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) Mother–child dyads Emotion regulation Community sample Stress/trauma 


Author Contributions

L.J.K. designed and executed the study and wrote the paper. D.F. collaborated with the design and writing of the study and paper. L.G.K. analyzed the data, conceptualized results, and collaborated on writing the paper. R.V. and K.C. and J.S. collaborated on study methods, data analysis, and writing. D.M. analyzed the data and wrote part of the results. A.B. analyzed the data and wrote part of the results.


This study was funded by a Chair’s Challenge Award, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Maryland School of MedicineBaltimoreUSA
  2. 2.The Pennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA

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