Child maltreatment (CM) lies on an extreme end of the continuum of parenting-at-risk, and while CM has been linked with a variety of behavioral indicators of dysregulation in children, less is known about how physiological markers of regulatory capacity contribute to this association. The present study examined patterns of mother and child physiological regulation and their relations with observed differences in parenting processes during a structured interaction. Abusing, neglecting, and non-CM mothers and their 3- to 5-year-old children completed a resting baseline and moderately challenging joint task. The structural analysis of social behavior was used to code mother-child interactions while simultaneous measures of respiratory sinus arrhythmia were obtained. Results indicated that physically abusive mothers were more likely to react to children's positive bids for autonomy with strict and hostile control, than either neglecting or non-CM mothers. CM exposure and quality of maternal responding to children's autonomous bids were uniquely associated with lower parasympathetic tone in children. Results provide evidence of neurodevelopmental associations between early CM exposure, the immediate interactive context of parenting, and children's autonomic physiology.
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