Title: The role of personality, mentalization, and mental representations in early parenthood
Authors: Tang, Ho-Shu
Issue Date: 25-Apr-2014
Abstract: Whereas parenthood and parenting have been the focus of decades of clinical writings and empirical research, knowledge in this area remains fragmented. This doctoral dissertation aims to contribute to our understanding of psychological processes in early parenthood from a contemporary psychodynamic perspective. Specifically, this study focuses on three parental factors that are often considered to be central in early parenthood: (a) personality, (b) mentalization, and (c) mental representations. More specifically, we focus on: (a) the personality dimensions of self-criticism and dependency, and associated stress generation processes, as conceptualized within Blatt’s two-polarities model of personality development; (b) Fonagy and colleagues’ emphasis on mentalization with regard to the self, i.e., the capacity to interpret one’s own behaviors and actions in terms of underlying mental states; and (c) the role of symbolic parental representations (SPRs), i.e., socio-culturally determined cognitive-affective schemas as to what characteristics a mother or father should possess in order to truly be a mother or father.In Chapter 1, we discuss contributions of the two-polarities, mentalization, and SPRs frameworks in advancing our understanding of the processes involved in early parenthood, and address some important limitations in each of these areas. This leads to the formulation of the central research aims of this doctoral dissertation, which are subsequently investigated in four samples (two samples of first-time biological parents, one sample of adoptive parents, and one sample of carefully matched prospective biological parents) and five studies (Chapters 2-6).In the first two studies (Chapters 2 and 3), we investigated transactional associations between self-criticism and dependency, on the one hand, and both child and parental development, on the other. Moreover, we investigated the potential intervening role of stress generation processes specifically associated with the transition to parenthood, as indexed by a measure of parenting stress. To this end, we analyzed data from a subsample of biological first-time parents of a child aged between 8 and 13 months at Time 1 who were followed up for 1 year (N = 79), using a multilevel Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) approach. In the first study (Chapter 2), we investigated transactional associations between self-criticism and dependency and child motor and socio-emotional development, and the potential intervening role of parental relationship stress in these associations. In the second study (Chapter 3), we investigated transactional associations between self-criticism and dependency and the quality of the emergent parent-child relationship, as indexed by parent-reported emotional availability, and the potential intervening role of parenting stress in these associations. We additionally explored the potential moderating role of child temperament. Results of these studies suggested that both self-criticism and dependency were associated with less optimal child development and dyadic emotional availability, and that stress generation processes played an important intervening role in these associations. Moreover, findings of the second study indicated that child temperamental features played a moderating role in these associations. The third study (Chapter 4) subsequently investigated transactional associations between self-criticism and dependency and internalizing and externalizing symptoms in a sample of biological first-time parents (N = 121). Moreover, we investigated the role of mentalization in explaining these associations. Again, a multilevel SEM approach was adopted. Results provided evidence in support of self-criticism and dependency conferring vulnerability to both internalizing and externalizing symptoms in parents. Moreover, findings suggested that mentalization with regard to the self, but not with regard to others, played an important intervening role.The fourth study (Chapter 5) sought to investigate the factor structure and longitudinal stability of SPRs in a sample of biological first-time parents (N = 424). Results confirmed earlier studies in that two factors seem to underlie SPRs in both mothers and fathers, with characteristics referring to limit setting/direction versus care. However, the symbolic paternal representation was more balanced compared to earlier research, whereas the symbolic maternal representation has remained slightly more care-oriented, which seems to reflect socio-cultural shifts in contemporary Western societies. In the fifth study (Chapter 6), we aimed to replicate and extend these findings in a case-control study of prospective adoptive versus biological parents (N = 36 couples each). More specifically, we investigated the factor structure of SPRs, and explored their role in the association between alexithymia, as an index of mentalization, and somatic symptoms. Findings revealed that prospective adoptive and biological parents were more similar than different with regard to the underlying structure of SPRs and mean levels of self-reported somatic symptoms, alexithymia, and SPRs. However, some interesting differences also emerged, which may have important implications for research and clinical practice.In Chapter 7, finally, we discuss the main findings of this doctoral dissertation in light of the extant literature on early parenthood, formulate directions for future research, and discuss implications for clinical practice.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Clinical Psychology

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