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Differential physiological sensitivity to child compliance behaviors in abusing, neglectful, and non-maltreating mothers

  • Jessica Norman Wells (a1), Elizabeth A. Skowron (a1), Carolyn M. Scholtes (a1) and David S. DeGarmo (a1)


We examined time-ordered associations between children's compliance behavior and maternal respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in a sample of 127 child-maltreating (physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse) and 94 non-maltreating mothers and their preschool-aged children. Child prosocial and aversive compliance behaviors and maternal RSA were continuously collected during a joint challenge task. Child behavior and mother RSA were longitudinally nested within-person and subjected to multilevel modeling (MLM), with between-person child maltreatment subtype and level of inconsistent parenting modeled as moderators. Both child maltreatment type and inconsistent parenting moderated the effects of child compliance on maternal RSA. Increases in children's prosocial compliance behaviors led to decreasing RSA in physically abusive mothers 30s later (i.e., increasing arousal), but predicted increases in non-maltreating mothers’ RSA (i.e., increasing calm). Inconsistent parenting (vacillating between autonomy-support and strict control) also moderated the effects of children's compliance behavior on maternal physiology, weakening the effects of child prosocial compliance on subsequent maternal RSA. These findings highlight variations in mothers’ physiological sensitivity to their children's prosocial behavior that may play a role in the development of coercive cycles, and underscore the need to consider individual differences in parents’ physiological sensitivity to their children to effectively tailor interventions across the spectrum of risk.


Corresponding author

Author for Correspondence: Elizabeth A. Skowron, College of Education 1215, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1215; E-mail:


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