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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Chelsea da Estrela, Psychology

Change of heart: Parenting stress and distress, and associations with heart rate variability

Date & time

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 (all day)


This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


Challenging parent-child interactions can be an important source of stress and distress for parents. Family stress models highlight that there is substantial individual variability in adjustment to parenting stressors. The current dissertation sought to examine whether parent self-regulation, as indexed by heart rate variability (HRV), is an inter-individual factor that predicts variability in the association between parenting stressors and parent mood disturbances. The first study tested whether there was an association between parenting stressors and parent’s self-regulatory capacities (i.e., parent HRV), and whether the marital context within which these stressful parent-child interactions occurred moderated this effect. Findings from this study, derived from a sample of 80 cohabiting heterosexual couples with preschool children, suggested that parenting stressors are associated with reduced parent self-regulation capacities and that fathers are especially vulnerable to the marital context within which this occurs. In the second study, using a daily diary design and the same sample as in the first study, we tested whether parent HRV moderated the association between parenting stressors and mood disturbances. Between- and within-person analyses indicated that the strength of the positive association between daily parenting stress and negative mood increased with decreasing HRV, suggesting that depleted parent self-regulatory capacities may index vulnerability to stress-related disturbances in negative mood. In the third and final study, sleep reactivity was identified as a potential pathway through which lower HRV confers greater risk for stress-related mood disturbances. The results from the moderated mediation model with 125 mothers of adolescents with developmental disorders and 97 mothers of typically developing adolescents, suggested that lower HRV is a potential biomarker of increased sleep reactivity which in turn increases the risk for elevated parent depressive symptoms associated with parenting stress. Taken together, these studies suggest that parent self-regulation capacities, as indexed by HRV, is a resource that may help identify which parents adapt, and which parents have difficulty adapting to, parenting stressors.

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