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Theses Doctoral

The Relationship Between Prior Maternal Trauma, Emotion Regulation and Maternal Sensitivity and Hostility Among High-Risk Adolescent Mothers

Kotsatos, Anna

Adolescence is a period of rapid development marked by significant neurological and behavioral change. Normative neurological shifts that take place during this stage of life occur in the areas of the brain most associated with response inhibition and emotion regulation which is understood in the context of the observed increases in impulsivity and emotional lability among many adolescents. These facets of development may present unique challenges for those adolescents who enter parenthood ruing this period of life as increasing evidence suggests that emotional and cognitive control are highly related to parenting behavior. Those parents who are better able to modulate their emotional responses are best able to cultivate sensitive and nurturing home environments for their children. Compounding the risk for themselves and their children, adolescent mothers also face a constellation of risk factors including poverty, low educational attainment, elevated levels of stress and high rates of early life trauma exposures. Those adolescent mothers who experience homelessness face additional risk, in part because social support and family involvement have been shown to benefit young parents and their children. A substantive body of literature suggests that these interrelated risk factors may stress the capacity to effectively parent, leading adolescent mothers to be less affectionate, less positive, more hostile and intrusive and less emotionally available when interacting with their children. Consequently, supporting adolescent mothers is of great public health concern as they, and their children, are at risk for a range of non-optimal outcomes.

The aim of this dissertation was to contribute to the current body of literature linking maternal emotion regulation with positive parenting practices among a highly vulnerable sample of homeless adolescent mothers and their children. Specifically, this dissertation used archival data to extend the current understanding of these associations by exploring the ways in which early life exposure to psychological aggression influenced the regulatory capacities and parenting behaviors of a sample of homeless adolescent mothers. To date, few studies have utilized a computerized measure of response control and behavioral inhibition under emotionally salient conditions in conjunction with ecologically valid multiple observer coded video observations of parent-child interactions within this high-risk population.

Participants (N=72) were adolescent mothers and their children living in nine Transitional Living Programs (TLPs) across a Northeastern state, aged 16-22 years old and predominantly Latinx and Black American. On average, participants had one child (M=1.3 years-old). Nearly half of the participants reported a history of foster care or group home involvement. Thirty-two percent of the sample self-reported clinically significant levels of depression and, on average, participants reported slightly elevated levels of anxiety. Consistent with the literature, the sample evidenced significant trauma exposures with participants reporting having experienced an average of three discrete traumatic events. For example, 37.3% reported having experienced physical violence in their home, 72% reported having experienced violence in their community, 45.3% reported having witnessed violence in their community, and 36.3% reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse. Data were collected from the baseline interview of a randomized control trial examining the effectiveness of an intervention designed to increase positive parenting among a sample of adolescent mothers living in TLPs. For this study, interpersonal trauma exposure was operationalized via the Psychological Aggression Scale of the Parent Child Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus, 1999). Maternal sensitivity and hostility were operationalized using the Sensitivity and Non-Hostility scales of the Emotional Availability Scales, 4th edition (EA Scales; Biringen, 2008). Maternal emotion recognition and regulation were operationalized via the Emotion Go/NoGo (EGNG) paradigm. Maternal depression and anxiety were also examined.

Consistent with the literature, this study found evidence for the complex associations between maternal exposure to psychological aggression, maternal emotion regulation and parenting behaviors. Specifically, there was a significant positive association between the accurate discrimination of sad from neutral facial expressions and maternal sensitivity. The accurate discrimination of fearful from neutral facial expressions, however, was associated with less sensitive parenting. Additionally, those mothers who were more impulsive when confronted with sad facial expressions during the EGNG sad emotion “go” task were less sensitive when interacting with their children. This study also found evidence for a significant interaction between maternal exposure to psychological aggression and impulsivity in the EGNG fearful emotion “go” task in the explanation of maternal sensitivity. Specifically, for those adolescent mothers who had experienced psychological aggression, impulsivity when confronted with fearful facial cues on a computerized task was associated with increased maternal sensitivity during dyadic interactions. For those mothers who had not experienced psychological aggression, however, increased impulsivity when confronted with fearful faces on the computerized task was associated with reduced maternal sensitivity.

Maternal exposure to psychological aggression was consistently associated with increased hostility with those mothers who had been exposed to psychological aggression evidencing more hostility when interacting with their children. Finally, in optimal conditions on a computerized task (i.e., when confronted with happy faces during the EGNG paradigm) those mothers who were rated as more sensitive during dyadic interactions all responded within approximately the same amount of time to the computerized stimuli. No relationship between maternal sensitivity and mean response time was found in the negatively valenced EGNG conditions. There was not sufficient evidence to suggest that emotion regulation and behavioral impulsivity mediated the relationship between exposure to psychological aggression and parenting behavior.

Consistent with the literature, these findings suggest a role for both maternal trauma exposure and regulatory capacities in the explanation of parenting behavior. These findings highlight the need for greater research on these complex and multidetermined relationships, particularly within the highly vulnerable adolescent parent population. Additionally, this study’s findings suggest possible avenues for interventions within this population, highlighting the need to consider the ways in which adolescent mothers’ regulatory capacities may influence their ability to intuit and respond to their children. Directions for future research and clinical implications are discussed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
School Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Peverly, Stephen T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 13, 2021