The parasympathetic nervous system supports social interaction and varies in relation to psychopathology. However, we know little about parasympathetic processes from a dyadic framework, nor in early childhood when parent-child social interactions become more complex and child psychopathology first emerges. We hypothesized that higher risk for psychopathology (maternal psychopathology symptoms and child problem behavior) would be related to weaker concordance of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) between mothers and children (M = 3½ years old; N = 47) and that these relations could vary by social contextual demands, comparing unstructured free play, semistructured cleanup, and structured teaching tasks. Multilevel coupled autoregressive models of RSA during parent-child interactions showed overall dynamic, positive concordance in mother-child RSA over time, but this concordance was weaker during the more structured teaching task. In contrast, higher maternal psychological aggression and child externalizing and internalizing problems were associated with weaker dyadic RSA concordance, which was weakest during unstructured free play. Higher maternal depressive symptoms were related to disrupted individual mother and child RSA but not to RSA concordance. Thus, risk for psychopathology was generally related to weaker dyadic mother-child RSA concordance in contexts with less complex structure or demands (free play, cleanup), as compared to the structured teaching task that showed weaker RSA concordance for all dyads. Implications for the meaning and utility of the construct of parent-child physiological coregulation are discussed.
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