Slide background

All living creatures have to cope with environmental
demands and threats that challenge their physical
or emotional homeostasis.

Renate Buisman

Child maltreatment and emotional regulation in the context of a family study

Research has demonstrated that child maltreatment can be transmitted across generations. But how do maltreated children become maltreating parents?

The 3G Parenting Study is a cross-sectional three-generational extended family study on the interplay of methodological,  genetic, and environmental factors involved in the intergenerational transmission of parenting styles, stress and emotion regulation. Data was collected between March 2013 and May 2016, resulting in a total of 63 families with 395 individuals from three to four generations that participated.  We operationalized mechanisms of (intergenerational transmission of) child maltreatment at multiple levels: behavioral, physiological (autonomic and hormonal), neurological (brain morphology and activity), and with quantitative and molecular genetics. In addition, we aim to distinguish between experiences of abuse versus neglect when examining the consequences and precursors of child maltreatment. Both abuse and neglect have been linked to maladjustment, yet it is still unclear whether abuse and neglect differentially impact behavioral and physiological systems.

Within the 3G Parenting Study I mainly focus on emotional regulation. Emotional regulation can be considered a key pathway through which experiences of child maltreatment influence how parents respond to their children. It includes cognitive responses (thoughts), physiological responses (e.g., autonomic nervous system or hormonal activity), and emotion-related behaviour responses (bodily actions or expressions). These indicators of emotion regulation were examined in several pseudo parenting contexts, including a standardized infant vocalizations paradigm, a parent-child interaction task and a family interaction task.

With regard to the infant vocalizations paradigm, we found that participants did not differ in their perceptions of the infant vocalizations signals according to their maltreatment experiences. However, maltreatment experiences were associated with the modulation of behavioral responses. Experiences of neglect during childhood were related to more handgrip force during infant crying and to less handgrip force during infant laughter. Moreover, a history of neglect was associated with a higher heart rate and a shorter pre-ejection period during the entire infant vocalization paradigm, which may indicate chronic cardiovascular arousal. The findings imply that a history of childhood neglect negatively influences parents' capacities to regulate their emotions and behavior, which could be problematic when reacting to children's emotional expressions.

Regarding the parent-child interaction task, we found that experiences of childhood neglect were uniquely associated with parent’s autonomic hyper-reactivity responses, whereas experiences of childhood abuse were uniquely associated with parent’s behavioral responses while discussing conflict with their children. This suggests that behavioral and physiological systems respond differentially to childhood abuse and neglect.

Currently, we are exploring the role of child maltreatment and emotion regulation in the interplay between individual and family characteristics. Results of these analyses are expected in the near future; feel free to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow me on ResearchGate.