Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 829–841 | Cite as

Physiological Self-Regulation Buffers the Relationship between Impulsivity and Externalizing Behaviors among Nonclinical Adolescents

  • Michelle A. Kuhn
  • Joshua J. Ahles
  • Jaclyn T. Aldrich
  • Madeline D. Wielgus
  • Amy H. Mezulis
Empirical Research


Trait impulsivity is a risk factor for rule breaking and aggressive (externalizing) behaviors among nonclinical youth. Buffers of trait-based risk are of practical interest to preventing externalizing behaviors. One such buffer may be the capacity and efforts of a child to self-regulate their physiology. Youth who possess baseline physiological self-regulatory capacities are more likely to maintain adaptive engagement with their environment and may be less prone to impulsively rule break or be aggressive. Similarly, youth who are able to use self-regulatory skills to calm their physiology in times of stress may be less likely to externalize distress. This study examined self-regulatory capacity and efforts as a moderator of the relationship between trait impulsivity and externalizing behaviors, cross-sectionally and prospectively. We hypothesized that the effect of trait impulsivity on externalizing behaviors would depend on the presence of baseline self-regulatory capacity and/or self-regulatory efforts during stress. Participants were 134 nonclinical adolescents (Mage = 12.59, SD = 1.20 51.9% female, 71% Caucasian). Trait impulsivity was measured using a parental report questionnaire. Physiological self-regulatory capacity and efforts were measured through collection of electrocardiogram data during a resting baseline and a stressful, unsolvable anagram task, respectively. Physiological self-regulation was quantified by calculating respiratory sinus arrhythmia scores across baseline and stress tasks. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia is the change in heart rate across the breathing cycle, and is hypothesized to index physiological self-regulation capacity and efforts under specific conditions. The results indicated that physiological self-regulation capacity, but not efforts, moderated the effect of trait impulsivity on externalizing behaviors prospectively. Stronger physiological self-regulatory capacity buffered the effect of greater trait impulsivity. Implications of these findings among typically developing youth are discussed.


Impulsivity Externalizing symptoms Self-regulation Respiratory sinus arrhythmia Parasympathetic nervous system Adolescence 



This research was funded by a grant by the National Institute of Mental Health to Dr. Mezulis (R15MH098294-01A1).

Author Contributions

M.A.K. participated in design and coordination of research subjects, analyzed data, and drafted the manuscript. J.T.A. participated in drafting the manuscript and analyzing data. M.W. participated in drafting the manuscript. J.J.A. conceived of the design, and aided in statistical analysis and manuscript drafting. A.H.M. conceived of the overarching study and reviewed the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This research was conducted in accordance to ethical standards for the protection of the health, safety, and confidentiality of subjects enrolled.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical Approval

This study was approved as human subjects research, through full board institutional review. All procedures were in accordance with national and institutional ethical standards.

Informed Consent

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


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Clinical PsychologySeattle Pacific UniversitySeattleUSA

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