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Young Children’s Physiological Reactivity during Memory Recall: Associations with Posttraumatic Stress and Parent Physiological Synchrony

Abstract

Autonomic reactivity is implicated in stress response and social engagement – both key components of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – but few studies have examined autonomic reactivity in pediatric samples, and no known studies have examined physiological synchrony among children with PTSD and caregivers. In a sample of 247 young children (94 girls, 153 boys), most (85%) of whom had exposure to trauma and 40% who met criteria for PTSD, we examined children’s patterns of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) at baseline and in response to a memory recall task, as well as correspondence between parents’ and children’s RSA. Children with PTSD demonstrated significantly higher reactivity than other groups during their recollection of a traumatic memory, but not during other memory tasks. Regarding synchrony, caregivers’ and children’s RSA were more significantly and positively correlated during the trauma recall task among children who had had exposure to a potentially traumatic event but did not meet PTSD criteria, suggesting physiological synchrony may be protective in contexts of trauma. Overall, findings demonstrate physiological reactivity differences among young children with PTSD. While more work is needed to understand the meaning of parent-child physiological synchrony, these data suggest that children’s psychopathology is associated with physiological synchrony processes among young children with exposure to trauma.

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Correspondence to Sarah A. O. Gray.

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Funding

This study was funded by grant R01 MH65884–01 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), awarded to Dr. Scheeringa, and work on this manuscript was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants L30HD085275 (SAOG) & K12HD043451 (SAOG; Krousel-Wood, principal investigator / project director). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.

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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 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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Gray, S.A.O., Lipschutz, R.S. & Scheeringa, M.S. Young Children’s Physiological Reactivity during Memory Recall: Associations with Posttraumatic Stress and Parent Physiological Synchrony. J Abnorm Child Psychol 46, 871–880 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-017-0326-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-017-0326-1

Keywords

  • Trauma
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Parent-child relationship
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Emotion regulation
  • Vagal tone