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Vagal tone protects children from marital conflict

  • Lynn Fainsilber Katz (a1) and John M. Gottman (a1)

In a previous article we reported linkages between marital hostility and children's externalizing behavior problems (Katz & Gottman, 1993). In this paper we examined whether individual differences in children's ability to regulate emotion (as indexed by vagal tone, a physiological measure of parasympathetic nervous system activity) could buffer children from the deleterious effects of marital hostility. Observational data was collected on 56 families during marital interaction when the children were 5 years-old. Baseline recordings of children's cardiac interbeat interval were also obtained for computations of vagal tone. Teacher ratings of children's behavior problems were obtained 3 years later when the children were on average 8 years old. Results indicated that children with low vagal tone showed a strong link between the amount of marital hostility displayed by their parents and subsequent displays of children's externalizing behavior. There was no relationship between marital hostility and children's externalizing for children with high vagal tone, suggesting that high vagal tone can buffer children from the negative effects of marital hostility.

Corresponding author
Lynn Fainsilber Katz, Department of Psychology, Mailstop NI-25, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195
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Development and Psychopathology
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