Category: Parenting / Families
Dysregulated fear (DF), characterized by high fear in low threat contexts, predicts development of anxiety (Buss, 2011). Anxiety risk is mediated by maternal parenting behaviors (e.g., Rubin, Burgess, & Hastings, 2002); however, the contexts under which DF influences parenting behaviors remains unclear.
Although mothers with anxiety-prone children may be more likely to engage in maladaptive parenting behaviors (i.e., protective parenting), mothers with heightened cortisol reactivity, a biomarker of stress reactivity, may be even more likely to engage in protective behaviors (Kiel & Buss, 2013). Further, parenting reactions to environmental stressors may depend on toddler gender (Miller et al., 1993). The current study examined a three-way interaction involving DF, cortisol, and gender to clarify the relation between DF and protective behaviors.
Forty-two (expected n by conference = 100) 2-year-old toddlers and their mothers participated in a laboratory visit. Mothers provided three saliva samples. Cortisol reactivity was calculated as Area Under the Curve with respect to increase (Pruessner et al., 1997). Mothers reported on their anxiety symptoms (Depression Anxiety and Stress Subscales, Antony et al., 1987). Mothers and toddlers participated in two low threat episodes (i.e., puppet show and clown; Buss, 2011) from which maternal protective parenting and DF were derived.
DF, maternal cortisol reactivity, and toddler gender interacted to predict maternal protective parenting after controlling for earlier maternal cortisol reactivity and current maternal anxiety. Probing revealed that the relation between dysregulated fear and maternal protective parenting behavior was moderated by maternal cortisol reactivity for boys (b = -.0026, p = .0466), but not for girls (b = .0021, p = .2476). DF predicted maternal protective parenting at low (b=.1173, p=.0001), mean (b = .0821, p = .000), and high (b = .0469, p=.0355) levels of maternal cortisol reactivity for males, but not at low (b = .0022, p = .9402), mean (b = .0307, p = .2281), or high (b = .0592, p = .1440) levels of maternal cortisol reactivity for females. For males, the relation between DF and protective parenting became weaker as levels of cortisol reactivity increased from low to high. Although not significant, the opposite trend occurs for females such that the relation between DF and protective parenting became stronger as levels of cortisol reactivity increased.
Results with the full sample will be discussed in the context of the larger literature on biology-environment interplay in parent-child interactions.