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The effects of distraction and reappraisal on children’s parasympathetic regulation of sadness and fear


Children commonly experience negative emotions like sadness and fear, and much recent empirical attention has been devoted to understanding the factors supporting and predicting effective emotion regulation. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a cardiac index of parasympathetic function, has emerged as a key physiological correlate of children's self-regulation. But little is known about how children's use of specific cognitive emotion regulation strategies corresponds to concurrent parasympathetic regulation (i.e., RSA reactivity while watching an emotion-eliciting video). The current study describes an experimental paradigm in which 101 5- and 6-year-olds were randomly assigned to one of three different emotion regulation conditions: Control, Distraction, or Reappraisal. All children watched a sad film and a scary film (order counterbalanced), and children in the Distraction and Reappraisal conditions received instructions to deploy the target strategy to manage sadness/fear while they watched. Consistent with predictions, children assigned to use either emotion regulation strategy showed greater RSA augmentation from baseline than children in the Control condition (all children showed an overall increase in RSA levels from baseline), suggesting enhanced parasympathetic calming when children used distraction or reappraisal to regulate sadness and fear. But this pattern was found only among children who viewed the sad film before the scary film. Among children who viewed the scary film first, reappraisal promoted marginally better parasympathetic regulation of fear (no condition differences emerged for parasympathetic regulation of sadness when the sad film was viewed second). Results are discussed in terms of their implications for our understanding of children's emotion regulation and affective physiology.

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