Exposure to aggressive parenting is a well-established environmental risk factor for anxiety symptoms. Moreover, autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity, including activity in both parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (PNS and SNS), may moderate the effects of aggressive parenting on anxiety. This study aims to examine the interactive effects of aggressive parenting and ANS activity (both PNS and SNS) in accounting for trait anxiety among emerging adults.
Participants (n = 190, mean age = 19.29, 56% females) reported retrospectively on childhood aggressive parenting and trait anxiety. In addition, we measured resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of PNS, and resting skin conductance level (SCL), an index of SNS.
Regression analyses revealed that the three-way interaction between resting SCL, RSA, and aggressive parenting significantly accounted for trait anxiety. Simple slope analyses suggest that the relation between aggressive parenting and trait anxiety is stronger at lower conditional values of resting RSA and lower conditional values of resting SCL.
Coinhibition, or relatively low activity across both systems, may exacerbate the link between aggressive parenting and trait anxiety. This study highlights the importance of considering the interaction effects of multiple physiological systems and environmental context on later psychological functioning.