Date of Award

5-6-2019

Degree Type

Closed Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

Erin Tully, PhD

Second Advisor

Lisa Armistead, PhD

Third Advisor

Lindsey Cohen, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Laura McKee, PhD

Abstract

Mothers who exhibit flexible emotional behaviors that appropriately shift to match the content of discussions with their children provide important emotion modeling for their children who often learn about emotional responses through observing their mothers. Findings suggest that currently depressed individuals tend to exhibit low flexibility in their emotionally expressive behaviors (EEBs) across emotional contexts. Mothers with elevations in current depression symptoms may be behaviorally under-reactive to changing emotional themes during parent-child discussions and thus may model low emotion flexibility to their children. Families were eligible for the study if parent-ratings indicated clinically elevated (72% of families) or very low levels of children’s depression and/or anxiety symptoms. A sample of 84 mother-child dyads (children aged 7 to 10 years) were observed as they discussed positive and negative family experiences. The intensity and frequency/duration of mothers’ positive, negative, sad, and angry EEBs (i.e., facial expressions, body language, and speech content) were rated separately in positive and negative discussions. The hypothesis was tested using four GEE models and followed up with tests of simple slopes to examine the interaction effect of maternal depression symptom level on discussion valence condition and maternal positive, negative, sad, and angry EEBs. Supporting the hypothesis, findings indicate that all mothers used significantly more positive EEBs during positive discussions than negative discussions and significantly more negative EEBs during negative discussions than positive discussions, and mothers with elevated depression symptoms exhibited less EEB flexibility than mothers with low levels of depression symptoms. Specifically, the magnitude of the differences between negative and positive discussions in positive EEBs, negative EEBs, and sad EEBs was smaller for mothers with elevated depression symptoms than for mothers with low depression symptoms. These findings indicate that mothers with elevated depression symptoms exhibit context-appropriate EEBs; however, the shifts in their EEBs across positive and negative discussions was less dramatic than for mothers with low depression symptoms. Thus, mothers with elevated depression symptoms are modeling a less flexible pattern of emotion responding and lower EEB flexibility might be a part of a broader risk profile for which depressed mothers transmit risk for developing depression to their children.

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