The Physiological Regulation of Emotion During Social Interactions: Vagal Flexibility Moderates the Effects of a Military Parenting Intervention on Father Involvement in a Randomized Trial

Na Zhang, John Hoch, Abigail H. Gewirtz

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    4 Scopus citations


    To make prevention programs more effective and understand “what works for whom,” evidence regarding what individual characteristics predict intervention responsiveness is needed. Previous studies have evaluated a military parent training program known as After Deployment Adaptive Parenting Tools/ADAPT, yet less is understood about the program’s varying effects for fathers. We tested the physiological regulation of emotion during social interactions as a moderator predicting fathers’ responsiveness in a randomized trial of ADAPT, in which emotion regulation was operationally measured through vagal flexibility (VF; dynamic changes in cardiac vagal tone). Families with a child aged between 4 and 13 years for whom physiological data were gathered (n = 145) were randomly assigned to ADAPT (14-week face-to-face group intervention) or a control group (services as usual). Fathers in these families were National Guard/Reserve members who had been deployed to war in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and recently returned. Prior to the intervention, cardiac data was collected in-home throughout a set of family interaction tasks and VF was operationalized as the changes in high frequency (HF) power of heart rate variability (HRV) from a reading task to a problem-solving task. Parenting behaviors were observed and coded based on theory-driven indicators pre-intervention and at 1-year follow-up. Results of structural equation modeling showed that VF significantly moderated fathers’ intervention responsiveness, such that fathers with higher vs. lower VF exhibited more effective parenting at 1-year follow-up if they were randomized into ADAPT vs. the control group. This study is the first to demonstrate that parasympathetic vagal functioning may be a biomarker to predict response to a military parenting intervention to enhance parenting in combat deployed fathers. The implications for precision-based prevention are discussed.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)691-701
    Number of pages11
    JournalPrevention Science
    Issue number5
    StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    The results of this paper were presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Prevention Research. This paper was part of a doctoral thesis supported by a Waller Summer Fellowship and a David and Karen Olson Fellowship, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, to the first author. The first author’s work on this paper was supported by a National Research Service Award (NRSA) in Primary Prevention by the National Institute on Drug Abuse through the Department of Psychology and the Research and Education to Advance Children’s Health (REACH) Institute at Arizona State University, grant no. T32 DA039772. The ADAPT study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, grant no. R01 DA030114 (PI: AG). The authors wish to thank Dave DeGarmo, Gerry August, Tim Piehler, Lindsay Weiler, and Dan Berry for their contribution to the conceptualization and analyses presented in this study, as well as Laurel Davis, Jingchen Zhang, Kadie Ausherbauer, and Ashley Chesmore for their contribution to data preparation.

    Publisher Copyright:
    © 2020, Society for Prevention Research.


    • Fathers
    • Heart rate variability
    • Military families
    • Parenting intervention
    • Vagal tone


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