Development and Psychopathology


The impact of allostatic load on maternal sympathovagal functioning in stressful child contexts: Implications for problematic parenting

Melissa L. Sturge-Applea1 c1, Michael A. Skiboa1, Fred A. Rogoscha2, Zeljko Ignjatovica1 and Wendi Heinzelmana1

a1 University of Rochester

a2 Mt. Hope Family Center, University of Rochester


The present study applies an allostatic load framework to an examination of the relationship between maternal psychosocial risk factors and maladaptive parenting behaviors. Specifically, the implications of low socioeconomic status and maternal depressive symptoms for maternal sympathovagal functioning during young children's distress were examined, as well as whether that functioning was, in turn, associated with maternal insensitivity, hostility, intrusiveness, and disengagement during mother–child dyadic interaction. Consistent with an allostatic framework, three patterns of sympathovagal functioning were expected to emerge: normative arousal, hyperarousal, and hypoarousal profiles. Furthermore, meaningful associations between maternal psychosocial risk factors, maladaptive parenting behaviors, and the three profiles of sympathovagal functioning were anticipated. Participants included 153 mother–toddler dyads recruited proportionately from lower and middle socioeconomic status backgrounds. Mothers’ sympathovagal response to their child's distress was assessed during the Strange Situation paradigm, and mothers’ parenting behavior was assessed during a dyadic free-play interaction. As hypothesized, normative arousal, hyperarousal, and hypoarousal profiles of maternal sympathovagal functioning were identified. Maternal depressive symptomatology predicted the hyperarousal profile, whereas socioeconomic adversity predicted hypoarousal. Moreover, allostatic load profiles were differentially associated with problematic parenting behaviors. These findings underscore the role of physiological dysregulation as a mechanism in the relationship between proximal risk factors and actual maladaptive parenting behaviors.

(Online publication July 15 2011)


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Melissa Sturge-Apple, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, 14627; E-mail:


This research was supported by funding from the National Institute of Nursing Research (Grant R21 NR010857-01). We are very appreciative of the mothers and children who participated in this project and gave generously of their time. We also thank the staff on the project, including Kaitlin Raines, Virginia Smith, Ashley Sarfaty, Li Chen, He Ba, and Roland Cheng. Finally, we appreciate the statistical consulting provided by Timothy Brick and the APA ATI.