Parent-child biobehavioral coregulation and child maltreatment risk

When parents are already stressed or overburdened, even small, daily stressors can be difficult to manage.  This may be especially challenging for parents of toddlers and young children who need close supervision, support, and guidance, and who also test their parents' limits on a regular basis.  In these situations, stressed parents may have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors with their children.  The Parenting Young Children Project (Dr. Erika Lunkenheimer, PI) is designed to understand how parents and children regulate their behaviors, emotions, and physiology with one another while tackling challenges, like solving a difficult problem or puzzle together.  Our goal is to examine how moment-to-moment patterns and fluctuations in things like heart rate, expression of positive and negative emotions, and behaviors such as discipline and compliance act as risk and protective factors for familial problems.  The question is whether a better understanding of these interaction patterns can help us to predict which families may be at higher risk for child maltreatment.  We hope this research will offer improved indicators of which families are in need of prevention and intervention services.

The PYCP is a longitudinal study involving behavioral observations, questionnaires, and physiological data at three time points: when children are aged 2 1/2, 3, and 4 years.  Mothers and fathers fill out questionnaires at all three time points, and mothers, fathers, and children come into the laboratory when children are 3 and 4 years of age.  We study patterns of interaction between parent and child, measuring emotions, behaviors, and physiological factors such as heart rate, breathing, and skin conductance.  Children also take part in individual tasks with the experimenter to assess aspects of self-regulation and behavioral adjustment.  Families are recruited for the study through partnerships with local schools, community agencies, organizations and Child Protective Services.