Theses Doctoral

Parental Attributions of Control and Self-Efficacy: Observed Parenting Behaviors in Mothers of Preschool Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Chiel, Zoe

Background. Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) report higher levels of stress and experience more marital strain and divorce than parents of typically developing children and parents of children with other disabilities. However, no studies have yet examined the relationship between parental attributions or beliefs and observed parenting behaviors for parents of children with ASD, a particularly challenging parenting context. Promising experimental and intervention studies suggest that parents’ perception of controllability can be modified, with consequential changes in parents’ actual parenting behaviors (Bugental & Happaney, 2002; Slep & O'Leary, 1998). The present dissertation seeks to extend the study of the relationship between parental cognitions and behaviors by understanding the role of cognitions for mothers in a community sample at high risk for elevated parenting stress, and by evaluating how the relationship between cognitions and parenting behaviors may vary based on the child’s level of functioning. Parenting behaviors were observed across different types of tasks intended to mimic naturalistic dyadic situations in order to identify the degree to which parenting behaviors may vary as a function of context. By identifying whether parental cognitions influence more or less competent parenting strategies, results will guide tailoring of interventions for the needs of this highly stressed population.
Methods. Forty-two mother-child dyads, with children ages 2 years and 6 months to 5 years and 6 months, were included in this study. Children were students at a specialized preschool utilizing an Applied Behavior Analysis approach to education, and all participating children had a diagnosis of ASD, verified by either the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (Lord et al., 2012), a gold-standard measure of ASD, or the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, Second Edition (Schopler, Van Bourgondien, Wellman, & Love, 2010) as part of their study participation. Mother-child dyads participated in several interaction tasks, including a 5-minute teaching task, 5-minutes of free play, and a 2-minute cleanup task, which were videotaped for later coding using the Psychological Multifactor Care Scale — ASD Adapted Preschool Version (Brassard, Donnelly, Hart, & Johnson, 2016). Mothers also completed questionnaires assessing parental stress, cognitions, child behavior problems, and demographic characteristics. Two cognitions were evaluated: attributions of control were measured using an adapted version of the Parent Attribution Test (Bugental, 2011; Woolfson, Taylor, & Mooney, 2011), which has previously been related to harsh parenting behaviors, particularly with maltreating families; and self-efficacy was measured using the Parenting Sense of Competence – Efficacy subscale (Gibaud-Wallston & Wandersman, 1978), a widely used measure of parental self-efficacy with a positive relationship to quality of parenting. Parental stress was assessed by the Parenting Stress Index – Fourth Edition, Short Form (Abidin, 2012). Participating children’s classroom teachers completed the Communication domain of the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales –Fourth Edition (Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Saulnier, 2016) as an assessment of children’s level of language functioning, and mothers rated their perceptions of their child’s behavioral functioning using the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2000).
Results. Multiple regression analysis found significant direct effects of attributions of control for both positive and harsh observed parenting behaviors, and significant interactions between attributions of control, parental self-efficacy, and child language functioning for observed harsh parenting behaviors. Observed harsh parenting behaviors were also predicted by the interacting relationship between parenting stress, self-efficacy, and parent perception of child behavior problems. There was no significant difference in the relationship between parental attributions and observed parenting behaviors between each of the three task types, though harsh parenting behaviors were more frequently observed during free play, relative to teaching and cleanup tasks. Regression models controlled for parental race, parent perception of child behavior problems, and the number of adults in the home – a proxy for caregiving support. Though mothers engaged in infrequent and mild levels of harsh parenting behaviors, those who did reported higher levels of stress, lower self-efficacy, and higher attributions of control, particularly during free play.
Conclusions. Parental attributions of control have been found to be a powerful and modifiable variable for maltreating samples, where mothers who believe child control is more important than adult control in impacting the outcome of a failed interaction are more likely to engage in harsh parenting. In this sample, a relationship was found in the opposite direction, in that mothers who perceived adult control as more important displayed more harsh parenting behaviors. The difference is likely related to the significantly distinctive context for parenting a child with ASD, given the unique relational and behavioral characteristics associated with the disorder. Whereas self-efficacy did not directly relate to observed parenting behaviors, it interacted with other family factors to predict parenting behaviors. Directions for future research and clinical implications are discussed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
School Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Brassard, Marla Ruth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2018