ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (3): 469-480.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.00469

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Parent-child attachment and children’s depressive symptoms: The role of children’s biological sensitivity and parental gender differences

XU Jianjie, ZHANG Yiyi, LAM Tak Kwan, CHE Liying, SONG Manman, HAN Zhuo()   

  1. Faculty of Psychology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • Published:2023-03-25 Online:2022-12-22
  • Contact: HAN Zhuo


Secure and stable parent-child attachment is beneficial for children’s mental health, whereas maladaptive parent-child attachment may lead to children’s maladjustment such as depressive symptoms. Due to rapid sociocultural development in China, traditional patriarchal parenting patterns with fathers as breadwinners and mothers as homemakers have gradually diminished. Instead, Chinese fathers today spend an increasing amount of involvement in their children’s development. However, little to no research has examined the unique effects of father-child and mother-child attachment on children’s developmental outcomes in contemporary China. More importantly, the Biological Sensitivity to Context Theory (BSCT) suggests that the association between parent-child attachment and child developmental outcomes may vary among children with different levels of biological sensitivity. According to this theory, children who are biologically sensitive are more susceptible to adaptive or maladaptive parent-child relationships. Taken together, the present study aimed to examine how children’s depressive symptoms were affected by mother-child and father-child attachments and whether these effects were moderated by the children’s biological sensitivity. The potential father vs. mother difference was also examined.
150 school-aged children (63 girls and 87 boys, Mage = 8.64±1.67 years) participated in the current study. Children reported their depressive symptoms as well as their perceived parent-child attachment with mothers and fathers, respectively. Children’s biological sensitivity (i.e., vagal suppression) was assessed by the decrease of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) between the resting phase and the task phases (i.e., a social stress task and a negative emotion provoking task) through the Biopac MP150 systems. Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations were analyzed via SPSS 25.0, and moderation models were conducted via Mplus 8.3.
Our results are highlighted by five major points (see Figure 1): (1) The level of mother-child attachment was higher than that of father-child attachment (ΔM = 3.55, t(146) = 4.28, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.35). (2) Both mother-child attachment (B = -0.28, SE = 0.07, β = -0.34, p < 0.001) and father-child attachment (B = -0.12, SE = 0.07, β = -0.17, p = 0.058) were uniquely and negatively associated with children's depressive symptoms, and the strengths of the aforementioned paths were equivalent (Δχ2 = 1.66, Δdf = 1, p = 0.198). (3) Children’s biological sensitivity (vagal suppression) measured in the social stress task and the negative emotion provoking task had similar moderating effects on the relation between parent-child attachment and children’s depressive symptoms, indicating the cross-context consistency of the roles of biological sensitivity. (4) Children’s cross-context biological sensitivity moderated the relation between mother-child attachment and children’s depressive symptoms (B = -0.27, SE = 0.07, β = -0.34, p < 0.001). Specifically, highly sensitive children (vs. non-sensitive children) were more likely to benefit from secure mother-child attachment but were also more likely to be harmed by insecure mother-child attachment (see Figure 2). (5) Children’s cross-context biological sensitivity did not moderate the relation between father-child attachment and children’s depressive symptoms (B = 0.04, SE = 0.05, β = 0.06, p = 0.441), such that higher father-child attachment was consistently associated with lower children’s depressive symptoms, regardless of children’s levels of biological sensitivity.
Based on attachment theory and the BSCT, the present study indicates that children’s attachment with their mothers or fathers are uniquely associated with children's depressive symptoms, and that mother-child attachment jointly interacted with children’s biological sensitivity to influence children’s depressive symptoms. As a theoretical application, our study innovatively suggests that future studies should consider the context in which an indicator of biological sensitivity is assessed as well as parental roles (father vs. mother) when testing the BSCT in family studies. As a practical application, our findings indicate the potential different roles of father-child attachment and mother-child attachment in protecting children from suffering depressive symptoms, providing empirical evidence to support the development of family-based prevention and intervention projects aimed at alleviating children’s psychopathological problems.

Key words: parent-child attachment, children’s depressive symptoms, biological sensitivity to context, parental gender