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Maternal Emotional and Physiological Reactivity: Implications for Parenting and the Parenting–Adolescent Relationship



Parent physiology and emotion may play an important role in parenting and parent-child relationship quality, yet little research has examined these associations in parents of adolescents. This study employed a naturalistic laboratory-based approach to observe maternal reactivity (mothers' cardiovascular and negative emotional responses) during a parent-adolescent interaction task (PAIT) and associations with parenting behavior and parent-adolescent relationship quality. We also examined possible indirect effect of maternal reactivity on parent-adolescent relationship quality through parenting variables.


Mothers (n = 196) of 12-14 year olds completed the PAIT, a 10-minute laboratory task in which mothers and adolescents discussed a family conflict topic. Mother-rated negative emotional experience, mother heart rate (HR), and systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP) responses to PAIT were collected. Additionally, observed maladaptive and positive parenting during PAIT and reported parent adolescent relationship quality were collected.


We found that mothers' heightened negative emotional experience in PAIT was associated with heightened observed and reported maladaptive parenting and lower parent-adolescent relationship quality (p<.001). Additionally, blunted HR reactivity was related to higher positive parenting in PAIT(p<.05). Lastly, we found an indirect effect of HR on parent adolescent relationship through positive parenting and an indirect effect of maternal negative emotional experience on parent-adolescent relationship quality through maladaptive and positive parenting. In sum, high emotional reactivity and blunted HR predicted poorer parenting, and directly and indirectly affected parent-adolescent relationship quality.


Parent reactivity may be important to consider in interventions.

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Author contributions

C.E.N. did the majority of the data analyses and wrote the paper. T.M.C. designed and executed the study and collaborated in editing the manuscript, C.C.T. assisted in data analyses and data collection. S.F.G. cleaned a large portion of the data and assisted with data analyses.


This research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health R01-DA033431 (PI: T.M.C.), R34DA034823 (PI: T.M.C.), and F31DA041790 (PI: C.C.T.).

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Correspondence to Claire E. Niehaus.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee by George Mason University and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Niehaus, C.E., Chaplin, T.M., Turpyn, C.C. et al. Maternal Emotional and Physiological Reactivity: Implications for Parenting and the Parenting–Adolescent Relationship. J Child Fam Stud 28, 872–883 (2019).

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  • Positive parenting
  • Maladaptive parenting
  • Physiological reactivity
  • Emotional responses
  • Parent-adolescent relationship