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Harsh Parenting and Trajectories of Adjustment across Late Adolescence: Autonomic Nervous System Activity as a Moderator of Risk




Saini, Ekjyot K.

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Human Development and Family Science

Restriction Status


Restriction Type


Date Available



Adjustment problems including internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depression) and externalizing behaviors (e.g., rule-breaking, aggression, hostility) increase across earlier adolescence but little is known about their trajectories across mid-to-late adolescence (ages 15 to 18). Socioemotional problems and maladjustment during this developmental period often forecast worsening mental health as youth transition to adulthood and it is imperative to identify individual and family factors that may exacerbate risk for poor outcomes. Harsh parenting, characterized by physically and verbally aggressive behavior, is associated with a wide range of poor adjustment outcomes such as depression, delinquency, and substance use. Longitudinal associations have been reported in adolescence; however, little is known if harsh parenting influences increases in internalizing symptoms or externalizing behaviors. Individual differences in autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity are processes that tend to moderate adjustment outcomes in harsh parenting contexts. For example, dysregulation via blunted or inappropriate ANS responding (e.g., lower levels of ANS indices in response to a stressor) may confer vulnerability and enhance risk for maladaptive outcomes. Conversely, greater vagal withdrawal (e.g., decline in respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA] from baseline to task) and greater SNS reactivity (i.e.., shortening of pre-ejection period [PEP], greater skin conductance reactivity [SCL]) have been associated with better adjustment in the context of harsh parenting. Many studies that have examined harsh parenting and ANS indices have been conducted with children and it is unclear if such resilience occurs in later adolescence. Sex-related effects have also been found to moderate these associations. For example, boys have often been implicated to be at greatest risk for increasing externalizing problem trajectories in the context of greater harsh parenting when they have poor ANS regulation (e.g., low SCL reactivity [SCLr]). The present study examines harsh parenting as a predictor of trajectories of adjustment across mid-to-late adolescence, as well as how ANS reactivity may moderate such associations. Using a multi-method approach, we assessed (1) youth and parent-reported harsh parenting as predictors of individual trajectories of internalizing symptoms (anxiety, depression) and externalizing behaviors (rule-breaking, aggression) over three waves (ages 16, 17, 18); (2) the moderating role of ANS reactivity on the aforementioned relations via RSAr, SCLr, and PEPr; and (3) examine the conjoint influence of ANS reactivity and adolescent sex as moderators of risk. Data for the present study were collected at ages 16, 17, and 18. Youth (N = 242; 53% girls, 66.8% White, 33.2% Black/African American) reported on their experiences of physical and verbal aggression from their parents at age 16, as well as completed physiological assessments. Each parent also reported on their own use of harsh parenting and reports were composited for a single score. Additionally, youth also reported on their internalizing symptoms and externalizing problems at each age. Results from the study indicate that youth-reported harsh parenting was a significant predictor of elevated adjustment problems at age 18 but did not predict change over time. Moderation effects of ANS indices and adolescent sex revealed that girls who reported greater harsh parenting and had longer PEPr were at greatest risk for elevated and increasing anxiety and depression symptoms across ages 16 to 18. Girls with low ANS reactivity also had the highest levels of aggressive behavior at age 18. Contrary to expectations, no moderation effects predicted trajectories of externalizing behavior. No direct or moderation effects for parent-reported harsh parenting on adjustment outcomes were found. Overall, results add to our understanding of relations between harsh parenting and maladjustment, particularly when examining how ANS regulation may contribute to this risk, while highlighting which groups may be especially vulnerable to poor mental health during this developmental period.