Parents and children mutually influence each other’s behavior, but little work has examined how parent‐child dyads influence one another’s physiological responding under conditions of emotional challenge. This is important to examine, because physiological substrates underlie the development of self‐regulation. We examined this in 97 parent‐child dyads who participated in a frustrating laboratory challenge that first perturbed the affective state of the dyad and then allowed recalibration. Children were between age 3 and 7 (M = 5.80 years, SD = 1.25 years; 41 boys). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and pre‐ejection period (PEP) were assessed continuously as measures of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system activity, respectively. Actor‐partner interdependence models (APIMs) were used to quantify the extent of physiological contagion between partners. The expected actor effects were found for RSA and PEP, and a partner effect was found for RSA only. Specifically, parents’ RSA reactivity to perturbation influenced children’s RSA reactivity during recalibration. This provides additional evidence for parent‐child coregulation, during which parents support their children’s regulatory efforts. We found no partner effects for PEP. Taken together, our results suggest that the two ANS branches may serve different regulatory functions, with parasympathetic functioning relating more strongly to social interactions and dyadic challenges like those in the current study. This study provides the first evidence of physiological contagion in an emotionally challenging context between parents and children.
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