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Dyadic flexibility and positive affect in parent–child coregulation and the development of child behavior problems

  • Erika S. Lunkenheimer (a1), Sheryl L. Olson (a2), Tom Hollenstein (a3), Arnold J. Sameroff (a2) and Charlotte Winter (a4)...

Parent–child dyadic rigidity and negative affect contribute to children's higher levels of externalizing problems. The present longitudinal study examined whether the opposite constructs of dyadic flexibility and positive affect predicted lower levels of externalizing behavior problems across the early childhood period. Mother–child (N = 163) and father–child (n = 94) dyads engaged in a challenging block design task at home when children were 3 years old. Dynamic systems methods were used to derive dyadic positive affect and three indicators of dyadic flexibility (range, dispersion, and transitions) from observational coding. We hypothesized that the interaction between dyadic flexibility and positive affect would predict lower levels of externalizing problems at age 5.5 years as rated by mothers and teachers, controlling for stability in externalizing problems, task time, child gender, and the child's effortful control. The hypothesis was supported in predicting teacher ratings of child externalizing from both mother–child and father–child interactions. There were also differential main effects for mothers and fathers: mother–child flexibility was detrimental and father–child flexibility was beneficial for child outcomes. Results support the inclusion of adaptive and dynamic parent–child coregulation processes in the study of children's early disruptive behavior.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Erika S. Lunkenheimer, Human Development & Family Studies, 303 Behavioral Sciences Building, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, 80523-1570; E-mail:
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