Date of Award

Fall 8-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Applied Developmental Psychology



Major Professor

Weems, Carl

Second Advisor

Frick, Paul

Third Advisor

Laird, Robert

Fourth Advisor

Marsee, Monica

Fifth Advisor

Martel, Michelle


The perception of and actual ability to control emotional responses during stressful, taxing situations are important to an individual’s well-being. Studies have shown that both low perceived control and a low actual ability for emotional control are related to internalizing and externalizing problems in youth. However, significant gaps in research exist in terms of testing theoretical predictions about how perceived and actual emotional control are associated with anxiety and aggressive behavior problems, particularly among adolescents. The first goal of this study was to examine two objective measures of actual control (i.e., vagal tone and vagal regulation) and their link with anxiety and aggressive behavior problems in youth ages 11-17 years. The second goal was to examine individual differences in youths’ ability to voluntarily control their heart rate and its association with youths’ perceived control and/or anxiety and aggressive behavior. The final goal was to expand upon Scott and Weems’ (2010) recent work by testing an adapted model of control using these two measures of actual emotional control.

Eighty youth (aged 11-17 years; 51% female; 37.5% African American) and their primary caregivers participated in this study. Youth completed a physiological assessment in which they watched a relaxing video, rested quietly, increased and decreased their heart rate, and performed a mildly challenging cognitive task while their heart rate, skin conductance and body temperature were measured. Youth and their caregivers also completed questionnaires measuring youths’ anxiety, aggression, and perceived control. The results indicated that resting vagal tone (i.e., high frequency – heart rate variability) was negatively associated with anxiety symptoms (and perceived anxiety control) in this adolescent sample but not aggression. Conversely, anxiety (child-reported) and aggression (parent-reported) were both associated with a maladaptive vagal augmentation in response to a challenging cognitive task. The findings also suggested there were individual differences in youths’ heart rate control (but were better at increasing it) and that less change in increasing heart rate was related to more child-reported anxiety symptoms. However, the results did not provide support for differential of prediction of anxiety symptoms versus aggressive behavior problems between control profiles.


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