Autonomic arousal and its relationship to child behavior: the moderating role of parenting practices
Moderated multiple regression analyses were conducted in order to examine parental involvement, poor monitoring and supervision, and inconsistent discipline as moderators in the relationship between autonomic arousal (i.e., baseline skin conductance level, baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia, skin conductance reactivity, respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity) and externalizing behavior. Data was collected from a sample of 360 fourth grade students identified by their teachers and parents as at-risk for moderate to high levels of aggression. The results did not support the research hypotheses posed in the current study. Despite the lack of significant results for the planned hypotheses, exploratory analyses produced useful findings about the complex relationships among these behavioral, physiological, and contextual constructs. Five predictor variables (i.e., parental involvement, poor monitoring and supervision, inconsistent discipline, gender, and RSA reactivity) predicted parent rated externalizing behavior, while gender was the single predictor of teacher rated externalizing behavior. This provided a unique look into how the predictor variables manifest themselves in different environments. Further, this study highlighted the main effects of sympathetic and parasympathetic functioning, which suggest that at-risk preadolescents are maladaptively regulated. For example, higher RSA reactivity indicated that at-risk youth have inflexible parasympathetic responding, which negates sympathetic activation. This main effect of RSA reactivity demonstrates that parasympathetic functioning predicts child behavior over sympathetic functioning in an at risk sample of children. Additionally, physiological response patterns in at-risk children appear to be more convoluted than originally suggested. The current study found higher levels of baseline RSA to be associated with higher ratings of teacher rated hyperactivity in the presence of high inconsistent discipline. This suggests that externalizing behaviors may not be entirely characterized by a single pattern of autonomic arousal (e.g. low baseline). Overall, these results confirm the influence of bioecological interactions on externalizing behavior in an at-risk sample of children and point to a nuanced and complicated picture of the maintenance of externalizing behaviors. This study highlighted relationships among the study variables that will serve to contribute to future research, treatment, and prevention of externalizing behavior in at-risk children.