Psychophysiology and the Family Environment in Emerging Adulthood

July 08, 2015 2:24 PM | Anonymous

Hello from Vermont! My name is Jamie Abaied, and I am an Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Vermont (UVM). I am also the co-chair of the Parents and Family Topic Network of SSEA. This week I’d like to share some exciting research we’ve been conducting in my laboratory on the role of psychophysiology in emerging adulthood.

Psychophysiology – what is it, and why does it matter for people studying families in emerging adulthood?

Psychophysiology refers to biological processes that underlie psychological phenomenon, such as attention, emotion, or cognition. Psychophysiological measures thus provide us with a window into how our bodies influence our development.

Pictured: An ECG waveform.

In the past decade, we have seen a huge wave of research that examines how children’s physiology shapes their reactions to their family environment. The goal of these studies is to understand why children exposed to similar family experiences show such a diverse array of outcomes. Psychophysiology may shed light on this process. In some cases, psychophysiology could be an underlying vulnerability that, when coupled with a stressful family environment, make it more likely that youth will have problems. Alternatively, some youths’ bodies may be more reactive to the outside world than others; as a result, these youth could be more at risk when things are bad but actually at an advantage when things are good (Pluess, 2015; Roisman et al., 2012). Psychophysiology could also shape which types of environments are ideal for certain people, also known as a “goodness of fit” perspective (Chess & Thomas, 1999). 

At this point, we have quite a bit of data showing us that youth with distinct psychophysiological profiles also show distinct reactions to their environment (for reviews, see El-Sheikh & Erath, 2011; Obradovic, 2012). However, this research has been conducted almost entirely in samples of children and (to a lesser extent) adolescents. This begs the question – does psychophysiology continue to moderate the effects of the family environment in emerging adulthood?

The UVM Coping with College Life Study

My research group at UVM conducted a study designed to answer this question. We recruited a sample of 180 college students who completed a series of slightly challenging tasks and periods of rest, during which we measured their autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity. They also answered questions about their family, their peer relationships, how they cope with stress, and their mental health. A subset of the participants also had one parent complete a brief survey.

Pictured: Me adjusting the settings on our bioamplifier.

We’ve explored how psychophysiology relates to three aspects of family environment so far: parent coping suggestions, parent depressive symptoms, and parent psychological control.

Parent Coping Suggestions

Parent coping suggestions, also known as socialization of coping, involve parents encouraging children to use particular types of coping strategies in times of stress. We know parent coping suggestions predict adjustment in kids and adolescents, but our study was the first to examine them in emerging adulthood (Abaied, Wagner, & Sanders, 2014;

We specifically examined respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are exposed to stress, typically RSA decreases, which allows our bodies to allocate resources to respond to our environment; many researchers view this as a sign of good self-regulation. 

We found that parent coping suggestions were associated with emerging adults’ responses to stress but only among emerging adults who showed (a) decreased RSA in response to an interpersonal stressor (i.e., describing a recent stressful event in one of their relationships), and (b) increased RSA in response to a noninterpersonal stressor (a mirror-tracing task). These findings suggest that psychophysiology does play a role in how sensitive emerging adults are to parent coping suggestions, but the “most sensitive” profile depended on the type of task students were working on when we measured their physiology.

More recently, we examined how parent coping suggestions interacted with psychophysiology to predict heavy drinking in college. In this study (Stanger, Abaied, & Wagner, under review) we focused on skin conductance level reactivity (SCLR), an indicator of the sympathetic nervous system, to an interpersonal lab task. Blunted SCLR is thought to indicate lack of inhibition, and it is correlated with heightened aggression sensation seeking; thus, we anticipated that it would enhance risk for heavy drinking as well. We also examined the role of age of onset of alcohol use, as starting to drink alcohol early in life is a robust risk factor for later heavy drinking. 

We found that in the presence of physiological risk only (blunted SCLR, late age of onset), engagement and disengagement suggestions buffered against heavy alcohol use. This suggests that for these youth, parent coping support was helpful even if parents encouraged disengagement from stress (which we typically think of as a bad thing). However, if both risk factors were present (blunted SCLR, early age of onset), engagement suggestions were problematic, predicting more heavy alcohol use among college students. Although engaging with stress is usually adaptive, it is possible that emerging adults who are otherwise at risk for drinking apply engagement suggestions inappropriately and increase their alcohol use.

Parent Depressive Symptoms

In another recent paper, I explored whether SCLR moderates the link between parent depressive symptoms and several aspects of emerging adults’ psychosocial well being (Abaied, 2015 I found that parent depressive symptoms predicted heightened depressive symptoms, maladaptive responses to stress, and insecure attachment in emerging adults, but only when emerging adults showed high SCLR to an interpersonal lab task. In contrast to blunted SCLR, high SCLR may indicate over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which could amplify emerging adults’ reactions to their parents’ depressive symptoms. Importantly, these findings are highly consistent with previous work done with children and adolescents, suggesting there may be some developmental continuity in the ways that SCLR shapes reactions to family environments.

Parent Psychological Control

Finally, we examined whether baseline RSA (i.e., RSA measured at rest) interacted with parent psychological control to predict disordered eating in emerging adults (Abaied, Wagner, Lafko, & Flynn, under review). Parents who are psychologically controlling undermine their child’s autonomy by manipulating thoughts and feelings, making affection contingent upon compliance, and inducing guilt or shame. Previous work in our lab (Abaied & Emond, 2013) and others suggests that psychological control is detrimental to emerging adults’ adjustment, and threats to autonomy are particularly relevant to disordered eating. We also examined how participants tended to respond to stress. 

We found that in the context of maladaptive responses to stress and high psychological control, RSA predicted increased disordered eating over time (6 months later). However, in the absence of parent psychological control, high RSA was beneficial in most cases, even when individuals reported maladaptive responses to stress. This suggests that supportive parenting coupled with physiological self-regulation can help to prevent disordered eating, whereas controlling parenting can potentially cause physiological self-regulation to be inappropriately applied, yielding heightened eating pathology.

What is the Take Home Message Here?

Psychophysiology is highly relevant to our understanding of the impact of families in emerging adulthood. This seems to be true across different areas of family environment and different aspects of emerging adult development.

These relations are complex. These data tell an interesting story, but not a simple one. The role that psychophysiology plays in shaping emerging adults’ development depends upon a number of individual and contextual factors.

There is still a lot of work to be done. We need more studies with longitudinal designs and diverse populations of emerging adults to move this area of research forward.

Have questions or interested in hearing more? Please feel free to email me at I also hope to see you at the SSEA Conference in October 2015!


Abaied, J. L. (2015). Skin conductance reactivity as a moderator of the link between parent depressive symptoms and emotional adjustment in emerging adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407515583170

Abaied, J. L., & Emond, C. (2013). Parent psychological control and responses to stress in emerging adulthood: Moderating effects of behavioral inhibition and behavioral activation. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 258-270. doi: 10.1177/2167696813485737

Abaied, J. L., Wagner, C., & Sanders, W. (2014). Parent socialization of coping in emerging adulthood: The moderating role of respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35(4), 357-369. doi: 10.1016/j.appdev.2014.06.002

Abaied, J. L., Wagner, C., Lafko, N., & Flynn, M. (2015). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia as a predictor of disordered eating in college students: moderation by responses to stress and parent psychological control. Manuscript under review.

Chess, S., Thomas, A., 1999. Goodness of fit: Clinical applications from infancy through adult life. Bruner/Mazel, Philadelphia, PA.     

El-Sheikh, M., & Erath, S. A. (2011). Family conflict, autonomic nervous system functioning, and child adaptation: State of the science and future directions. Development and Psychopathology, 23(02), 703–721. doi:10.1017/S0954579411000034

Obradović, J. (2012). How can the study of physiological reactivity contribute to our understanding of adversity and resilience processes in development? Development and Psychopathology, 24, 371-387. doi: 10.1017/S0954579412000053

Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, n/a-n/a. doi:10.1111/cdep.12120

Roisman, G. I., Newman, D. A., Fraley, R. C., Haltigan, J. D., Groh, A. M., & Haydon, K. C. (2012). Distinguishing differential susceptibility from diathesis-stress: Recommendations for evaluating interaction effects. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2), 389-409. doi:10.1017/S0954579412000065

Stanger, S., Abaied, J. L., & Wagner (2015). Predicting heavy alcohol use in college students: Interactions between socialization of coping, alcohol use onset, and physiological reactivity. Manuscript under review.