Maternal dispositional empathy and electrodermal reactivity: Interactive contributions to maternal sensitivity with toddler-aged children

Helen T. Emery, Nancy L. McElwain, Ashley M. Groh, Katherine C. Haydon, Glenn I. Roisman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The present study investigated maternal dispositional empathy and skin conductance level (SCL) reactivity to infant emotional cues as joint predictors of maternal sensitivity. Sixty-four mother-toddler dyads (31 boys) were observed across a series of interaction tasks during a laboratory visit, and maternal sensitivity was coded from approximately 55 minutes of observation per family. In a second, mother-only laboratory visit, maternal SCL reactivity to infant cues was assessed using a cry-laugh audio paradigm. Mothers reported on their dispositional empathy via a questionnaire. As hypothesized, mothers with greater dispositional empathy exhibited more sensitive behavior at low, but not high, levels of SCL reactivity to infant cues. Analyses examining self-reported emotional reactivity to the cry-laugh audio paradigm yielded a similar finding: Dispositional empathy was related to greater sensitivity when mothers reported low, but not high, negative emotional reactivity. Results provide support for Dix's (1991) affective model of parenting that underscores the combined contribution of the parent's empathic tendencies and his or her own emotional experience in response to child emotions. Specificity of the Empathy × Reactivity interaction is discussed with respect to the context in which reactivity was assessed (infant cry vs. laugh) and the type of sensitivity examined (sensitivity to the child's distress vs. nondistress).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)505-515
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Family Psychology
Volume28
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 2014

Keywords

  • Electrodermal reactivity
  • Infant crying
  • Infant laughing
  • Maternal empathy
  • Maternal sensitivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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