Parasympathetic reactivity and disruptive behavior problems in young children during interactions with mothers and other adults
Cooper-Vince, Christine Elizabeth
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Disruptive behavior problems are among the most commonly occurring forms of childhood psychopathology and show considerable stability beginning in early childhood. Investigations of the biological underpinnings of behavior problems have revealed that the influences of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system on cardiac functions are central to self-regulation. Parasympathetic regulation of heart rate is indexed via respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Suppression of RSA during challenging emotional and cognitive tasks is associated with better emotional and behavioral functioning in preschoolers. However, the relationship between RSA suppression and preschool social functioning is still unclear. Further, direct relationships between behavior problems and RSA reactivity within command-based play tasks (i.e., child instructed to build 3 towers) with parents and other adults have yet to be examined. The present study experimentally evaluated the relationship between child RSA reactivity and adult (mother vs. staff) commands requiring child compliance during command-based play tasks in children ages 3-8 with and without disruptive behavior disorders (N=43). Child RSA suppression in response to commands was examined as a predictor of child command compliance during experimental play tasks and of general child behavior problems, and was compared across command-based interactions with mothers versus staff. Less RSA suppression in the context of mothers’ play-based commands was associated with more severe behavioral problems (p=.046). In the context of staff play-based commands, more RSA suppression was associated with more severe behavior problems (p=.009), an effect that was significant only among boys (p<.000). Further, greater child RSA suppression predicted greater compliance with mother-given commands (p=.017), but was unrelated to compliance with staff-given commands. The relationship between child RSA suppression and compliance with mother-given commands was moderated by child age, such that the effect of RSA suppression on child compliance was stronger for younger children than older children. Findings suggest that RSA reactivity to social demands, and the functional association between RSA suppression and behavioral compliance, vary by social context (i.e., mother vs. other adult command-givers) and identify child factors (i.e., age, gender) that influence these associations. This work may inform efforts to identify a biomarker of early childhood behavior problems.