Methods: A sample of 169 child-welfare involved and comparison mothers and their young children completed a moderately challenging laboratory task in which parenting behaviors were coded and maternal respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a measure of emotion regulation, was collected. Risk factors were assessed across four domains: (1) sociodemographic risk (low education, low income, teenage parenthood, etc.) (2) concurrent maternal life stressors (negative events, domestic violence exposure), (3) neighborhood risk (neighborhood disadvantage, community violence exposure, and geographic isolation), and (4) child risk (temperamental negativity, behavior problems, disability status, and low birth weight), and a total CR variable was also computed. The majority of mothers in the sample identified as White and were 30.1 years of age on average (SD = 6.1). Main effects models examined relationships between risk indices, maternal psychological functioning measures, and positive parenting, and subsequently we tested whether maternal psychological distress or maternal RSA reactivity mediated or moderated the association between risk indices and positive parenting.
Results: Overall CR and the indices of sociodemographic risk, concurrent maternal life stressors, and child risk were associated with lower positive parenting and increased psychological distress, but not with RSA change from resting to task. Neighborhood risk was not associated with positive parenting. Neither maternal psychological distress nor RSA change mediated or moderated the relationship between risk indices and parenting. Instead, maternal RSA activation (β = .15, p <.05) and the domains of sociodemographic risk (β = -.23, p <.01), concurrent maternal life stressors (β = -.16, p <.05), and child risk (β = -.18, p <.05) were independently associated with positive parenting.
Conclusions and Implications: Increased cumulative maternal risk, as well as multiple specific domains of family risk, were associated with less positive parenting. In addition, although maternal RSA reactivity was independently associated positive parenting, it did not mediate or moderate the effect of maternal risk. These findings emphasize the potentially separate and important roles played by both ecological stressors and physiological regulatory processes in how mothers respond to their young children in challenging caregiving situations. Therefore, future research should test whether interventions that simultaneously reduce cumulative stressors and target maternal self-regulatory abilities promote effective parenting among this population.