Study Shows Link Between Sinus Rhythm, Depression and Parent-Child Interactions

Depression affects not only the person experiencing the depression, but in the case of mothers, their children as well. In a recent study, researchers from Case Western University examined the relationship between maternal depression and child-parent interactions. “Mothers experiencing problems with depression tend to exhibit low levels of parental warmth and support, as well as high levels of negative affect and criticism with their children, which may contribute to the development and maintenance of internalizing and externalizing problems in youth,” said the team. In particular, Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) may be a key factor in this dynamic. Because RSA affects the breathing and heart rate, reducing RSA may be one avenue to increase available energy that is needed to regulate emotional response.

For their study, the team examined 59 groups of parents and their teen children. They assessed how RSA affected positive and negative emotion in response to specific discussion tasks, specifically, a positive discussion followed by a conflict situation. Finally, they were asked to discuss a positive plan that they could participate in as a family in the upcoming week. As expected, the groups had more negative emotion during the conflict task than the positive behavior and activity tasks.

The team did find a significant relationship between RSA and affect. “In general, higher teen RSA predicted greater mutual positivity. Further, parental RSA appeared to be particularly important for promoting positive mutuality in families of teens exhibiting lower physiological capacity to regulate their emotions.” They added, “Greater positive mutuality (and less negative emotional mutuality) appears to be central to the socialization of emotions within families and the development of close, supportive parent– child relationships.” The team hopes these results will encourage future research in this area. “An important next step is to examine RSA and emotional processes related to diagnosed depression and to examine aspects of depression such as chronicity and severity that may be further related to family risk.”

Connell, A. M., Hughes-Scalise, A., Klostermann, S., & Azem, T. (2011, August 29). Maternal Depression and the Heart of Parenting: Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia and Affective Dynamics During Parent–Adolescent Interactions. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025225

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Christine


    September 7th, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    Most of us care so in sync with our kids that it can be kind of scary at times. But I like what this says about RSA and it really got me thinking about the ways that different breathing techniques and mindful thinking could play such a positive role in our lives if we would just sit back and meditate upon that.

  • Alexandra


    September 7th, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    The way I see it, it’s like doing kind acts… When you do a single kind act, the receiver of the kind act feels really good because of you and is likely they will commit kind acts themselves. I believe the same can be true for depression. Just as your kindness can effect others, so can your anger. I know of countless times when someone was complaining about their life which caused me to be in a gloomy mood all day. I could only imagine how this would be magnified with someone you live with all the day (in this case your parents). This RSA study is very exciting for the possibilities of what can be learned from more testing. Perhaps in the near future we will have the ability to predict with great accuracy who is at a high risk of depression.

  • Alice k

    Alice k

    September 7th, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    So here the effect of a mother being depressed affecting her teen children is proven.It is true I agree and more so because of the relationship.

    But is this also possible for others? Like a partner maybe. Or is this biological?

  • corey


    September 8th, 2011 at 4:18 AM

    Don’t know all about the sinus rhythm stuff, but I do know that what mothers feel, kids tend to feel. We are merely a reflection of our childhood and the experiences therein. No surprise at all that what happens with one happens with all. It is probably a cycle that has been repeated in the family for years and years.

  • High-fly


    September 8th, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    With the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions constantly on the decline I dint think a parent’s depression will have too much affect on the child in the near future. But that doesn’t mean theyre both in fine health. Family time is essential and this needs fixing first.

    Yes, if a parent is depressed it does affect the child, at least now. But what if both the parent and child are fine and there is not too much interaction?is that good? Not at all!!!

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