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State Frontal EEG Asymmetry Moderates the Association between Maternal Distress Responses and Child Externalizing Problems

Sat, March 23, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Baltimore Convention Center, Level 3, Room 313

Integrative Statement

Left frontal EEG asymmetry (FA) indicates higher frontal brain activity in the left
hemisphere, and is inconsistently associated with positive and negative emotion (Davison, 2001; Harmon-Jones & Gable, 2016) as well as increased and decreased externalizing problems (Santesso et al., 2006; Gatzke-Kopp, Jetha, Segalowitz, 2012). Therefore, instead of indicating emotional valence or motivation tendencies, it is suggested that left FA could be conceptualized in terms of the differential susceptibility (DS) and may represent high sensitivity to context (Fortier et al., 2014). Individual differences in FA may be better captured during emotionally relevant events (i.e. state FA) than at rest (Coan, Allen, & McKnight, 2006). To the best of our knowledge, no one has examined the moderating effect of state FA between maternal distress response to child negative emotions and child externalizing problems during middle childhood. The goal of our study was to examine how state FA moderated the association between maternal distress response at age 6 and child externalizing problems at age 9.

Participants included 185 children (91 boys, 94 girls). At 6 years old, children performed
the Wrong Gift task that is used to test child susceptibility to negative affect and the ability to regulate frustration. EEG was recorded when child was left with the wrong gift for 1 minute. EEG power was computed for the 6-9 Hz child alpha frequency band, which has been associated with patterns of emotion reactivity and emotion regulation (Bell & Fox, 1994). EEG power was expressed as mean square microvolts and the data were transformed using the natural log (ln) to normalize the distribution. We focused on FA at medial frontal (F3/F4). FA values were computed by subtracting left EEG power from right EEG power (F4-F3). Because power in the 6–9 Hz band is inversely related to cortical activation (Fox, 1994), a negative asymmetry score reflects greater right frontal activation and a positive asymmetry score reflects greater left frontal activation. Maternal distress to child negative emotions was measured by the Coping with Children’s Negative Emotions Scale (CCNES; Fabes, Poulin, Eisenberg, Madden-Derdich, 2002) at 6 years old. Externalizing problems was measured by the Child Behavioral Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach & Rescorla, 2000) at 9 years old.

Results showed that child FA significantly moderated the association between maternal
distress responses and child externalizing problems (p = .04, Table 1). Specifically, maternal distress significantly predicted child externalizing problems only when children showed left FA but not right FA (see Figure 1). Consistent with the DS theory, when maternal distress was high, showing left FA increased the risk of having externalizing problems. When maternal distress was low, having left FA predicted less risks. The findings indicate that state left FA is neither intrinsically risky nor intrinsically protective, but interacts with specific environmental risks to shape behaviors for better and for worse (Gatzke-Kopp et al., 2012). Future research may want to replicate the current findings by testing the role of state verses resting FA in the manifestations of behavioral problems within the DS framework.


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