Reflective Functioning in Caregivers: Links to Adverse Childhood Experiences and Emotion Socialization Behaviors
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Caregivers with a childhood history of abuse and neglect are at a greater risk for the intergenerational transmission of maltreatment due to the reenactment of maladaptive caregiving behaviors learned from their caregivers. Some parents, however, are able to make sense of their childhood experiences and break this cycle by establishing secure and supportive relationships with their children. Theory and research suggest that reflective functioning (RF), the ability to understand and interpret one’s own and others’ behavior as an expression of thoughts, feelings, and intentions, offers a framework to understand how early experiences with caregivers play a role in the intergenerational transmission of caregiving behaviors. Much of the research to date has separately examined the constructs of RF (adult and parental RF), making it unclear whether adult and parental RF play similar or unique roles in caregiving. Further, RF has been primarily evaluated in relation to general support-based behaviors but it is proposed to promote caregivers’ use of more specific emotionally responsive strategies. In effort to illuminate the unique and joint contribution of adult and parental RF on specific caregiving behaviors, the present study used multiple, converging measures (i.e., interview, observation, caregiver report) to assess the association between adult and parental RF on emotion socialization strategies in a sample of caregivers of preschool-aged children. Participants were 64 children aged 3-5 years from Head Start programs and their primary caregiver. Caregivers’ adverse experiences with childhood caregivers were measured with self-report; caregivers’ RF abilities were assessed with self-report and interview methods; and caregivers’ emotion socialization strategies were measured with self-report and observation. Results indicated that adult and parental RF together accounted for significant variance on caregiver-reports and observed emotion socialization strategies, with both adult and parental RF serving as unique predictors of specific caregiving behaviors. Further, adult RF moderated the association between caregivers’ exposure to maladaptive parenting in childhood and particular observed emotion socialization behaviors. These results suggest that reflecting on the type and quality of caregiving received in childhood can promote effective and positive caregiving behaviors among caregivers exposed to maladaptive parenting behaviors in childhood.