An Alarm Stress Task was developed to study affect regulation in the context of parent–child interactions in adolescents (mean age = 12.72, standard deviation = 2.06) with (n = 20) and without (n = 20) mental health problems. Changes in heart rate (HR), preejection period (PEP) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) were used as indicators of affect regulation. HR increased, and PEP and RSA decreased significantly in reaction to a suggested failure on a simple task, indicating that this procedure induced affective arousal in adolescents. During reunion with the parent, RSA increased significantly. Support seeking on reunion was associated with stronger parasympathetic reactivity during stress and reunion, consistent with the model that the parasympathetic system is involved when affect is regulated by social engagement. Quality of parent–adolescent interactive behaviour was overall lower in the clinical sample. Individual and relationship-based processes of affect regulation may be simultaneously assessed, highlighting the continuing importance of the parent–child relationship in adolescence for affect regulation and mental health. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.