Differential Effects of Family Stress Exposure and Harsh Parental Discipline on Child Social Competence

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12 Scopus citations


Low family socioeconomic status (SES) is a robust risk factor for adverse child outcomes, yet the specific processes that account for this risk are not fully understood. This study examines whether and how variation in two adverse factors, stressful life events and harsh parental discipline, affect children’s social competence within a high-risk environment, and whether some children are more vulnerable to these effects than others. Data were collected from 207 families of kindergarten children at risk for behavioral maladjustment. Children’s physiological regulation (respiratory sinus arrhythmia; RSA) measured during rest was examined as a moderator of risk exposure. Results indicate that both greater exposure to life stress and harsh discipline were correlated with lower social competence. Although children’s resting RSA was not a direct predictor of their social competence, it moderated the association between life stress and social competence. Greater exposure to life stress was more strongly associated with lower social competence among children with lower resting RSA. Higher RSA may help to buffer the effects of stress and facilitate appropriate social development. RSA did not moderate the effects of harsh discipline. This differential pattern of findings suggests that children’s physiological regulation can facilitate an effective response to situational stressors, but may be less efficacious in buffering against stress in the context of the parent-child relationship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)483-493
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Child and Family Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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