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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

APA Citation:

Zhang, N., Hoch, J., & Gewirtz, A. H. (2020). 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. Prevention Science, 21, 691-701. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-020-01122-6

Abstract Created by REACH:

This randomized controlled study examined whether vagal flexibility (i.e., a physiological indicator of emotion regulation) explained why some fathers demonstrated more improvements in their parenting practices following participation in the After Deployment, Adaptive Parenting Tools (ADAPT) program. 145 fathers in the National Guard/Reserve were randomized into the ADAPT program (n = 87) or a control group (n = 58). Vagal flexibility was measured at baseline by examining how physiologically aroused fathers tended to be at rest (i.e., reading to their child) compared to their arousal in a stressful parenting situation (i.e., engaging in a problem-solving task with their child). Fathers’ parenting practices (i.e., problem-solving, skill encouragement, monitoring, positive involvement, and discipline) were coded at baseline and at a one-year follow-up. Fathers enrolled in the ADAPT program with higher vagal flexibility generally exhibited more improvements in their parenting practices compared to fathers with lower vagal flexibility.



Branch of Service:

Multiple branches

Military Affiliation:

Active Duty

Subject Affiliation:

Active duty service member
Child of a service member or veteran
Military families
Spouse of service member or veteran


Childhood (birth - 12 yrs)
Adolescence (13 - 17 yrs)
Adulthood (18 yrs & older)
Young adulthood (18 - 29 yrs)
Thirties (30 - 39 yrs)
Middle age (40 - 64 yrs)


Randomized controlled trial


Zhang, Na, Hoch, John, Gewirtz, Abigail H.


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.

Publisher/Sponsoring Organization:


Publication Type:

REACH Publication

Author Affiliation:

REACH Institute, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, NZ
Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, JH
Department of Family Social Science and Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, AHG


physiological regulation, emotion, social interactions, vagal flexibility, military parenting, interventions, father involvement, father, military, vagal, involvement, parenting, interactions, social cognition, regulation, physiological

View Research Summary:

REACH Publication Type:

Research Summary


National Institute on Drug Abuse, grant no. R01 DA030114 (PI: AG)

REACH Newsletter:

  December 2021

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