Maternal psychological maturity, parenting and toddler regulation
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 22:45 by Nikki Johnson
Developing the capacity to regulate behaviour and emotions is a major developmental task of early childhood and becomes particularly salient during toddlerhood, in the context of increased cognitive, behavioural and emotional capacities. The development of self-regulation depends on children’s biological and genetic characteristics and cortical maturation as well as on learning and socialisation provided by parents. Therefore, while encouraging autonomy, parents, must balance sensitive support and teaching their toddlers with setting firm boundaries and rules. This can be a challenging and stressful period for both parents and children; sometimes resulting in temper tantrums and parent-child conflict. The current research examined maternal characteristics posited to influence optimal parenting. This research has been influenced by several key developmental theoretical perspectives that emphasise the fundamental role played by the quality of parent-child interactions in child development (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Biringen & Easterbrooks, 2012; Bowlby, 1969/1982). The research has also been influenced by the suggestion that, while acknowledging the contribution of child characteristics, the psychological resources of the parent are a key determinant of parenting quality (Belsky, 1984; Bornstein, 2006). Baumrind’s (1968) description of an authoritative parenting style (characterised by warmth, limit setting and support) provides an optimal framework for children’s emotional and self-regulatory development and further informs the specific focus of this research: the evaluation of maternal psychological maturity (hardiness) and maternal sensitivity. Child domains examined were night-time sleep, regulation within challenging contexts (daytime napping and managing frustration) and socioemotional capacities during toddlerhood. Participants in this study were 134 first-time mothers, aged between 26 and 43 years (mean age 33.8 years), and their toddlers (mean age 19.4 months, ranging from 18 to 22 2months). In response to the current trend in developed countries for women to delay parenthood, women who were first-time mothers and older age were recruited during pregnancy into a larger longitudinal study. To allow for maternal age comparisons, the longitudinal study over-sampled older mothers relative to population rates; and to accurately reflect fertility decline in this age cohort, mothers who conceived with assisted conception were also over-represented. As a result, the current research sample was older than average first-time mothers in Australia, and 40% conceived with assisted conception. This sample were predominantly married or in a de-facto relationship, English-speaking, highly educated, working part-time at 18 months post-partum, and living in metropolitan areas within Australia. In all studies, these sample characteristics were taken into account. The overarching research question in this thesis was: are more psychologically mature women more capable of providing optimal parenting to promote their children’s self-regulatory development during toddlerhood? Structural equation modelling was used to examine the contribution of maternal age and psychological maturity along with other relevant variables. Participants reported on a measure of hardiness (psychological maturity) during their third trimester of pregnancy and the remaining data were collected during the first 12 postnatal months, then during a home visit when the children were approximately 18 months old. During the home visit, two mother-child interactions (free play and frustration/split attention task) were filmed and, later, coded for a) mother and child emotional availability and b) child emotion regulation strategies and distress, respectively. All three studies considered a number of potential confounding variables including maternal age at time of birth, level of education, mode of conception, language spoken at home, hours in paid work and concurrent mood at 19 months. Several child variables were also considered: child gender, birth weight, admission to ICU, ongoing illnesses, hours spent in day-care per week, and infant and toddler temperament. The three different studies in this thesis, which were prepared for publication, addressed different aspects of child emotion regulation. Study 1. The first study focused on toddlers’ night time sleep. Participants were 134 mothers who reported on child sleep at 7 and 19 months post-partum. At 19 months post-partum, mothers also reported on their cognitions and involvement around their children’s bedtime: half the sample used actigraph monitors to validate maternal reports of child sleep. Path analysis confirmed that higher prenatal maternal hardiness was associated with fewer problematic sleep-related cognitions and less involvement at bedtime, and more optimal child sleep during toddlerhood; after considering concurrent maternal mood and child temperament, all ps < .01. Study 2. The second study explored toddlers’ capacity to regulate within challenging contexts; namely, daytime napping and during a frustration task. Mothers (N= 134) reported on child temperament at four months postpartum and completed a four-day sleep diary at 19 months regarding both daytime naps and night-time sleep. Toddlers’ daytime napping was hypothesised to relate to their capacity to regulate emotions during a frustration task; however, this association was not found. Therefore two separate path models were tested: one to explain contributions to toddler napping, and the other to emotion regulation maturity. Structural equation modelling revealed that mothers with higher levels of hardiness and sensitivity had toddlers who napped for longer (ps < .01), and concurrent temperamental rhythmicity was not associated with the amount of time toddlers’ napped. Unexpectedly, male toddlers (p < .01) and toddlers with older mothers were reported to nap for less time (p < .05). In relation to the frustration task, two explanatory pathways were identified. The first path identified that toddlers who had mothers with higher levels of hardiness and mothers who demonstrated more sensitivity demonstrated more maternal support-seeking (all ps < .01) to manage their frustration. Whereas, the second path identified that older toddlers who were rated by their mothers at 19 months as more temperamentally persistent used more autonomous self-regulatory strategies (all ps < .001). Both types of strategies reduced child distress; however, as expected, more autonomous self-regulation was more effective (all ps < .001). Finally, children rated by their mothers as more temperamentally reactive demonstrated significantly more distress. That reactivity was not at all associated with self-regulatory strategies suggests that reactivity stops toddlers from being able to effectively engage in more adaptive coping. Study 3. The final study included 128 mothers for whom complete questionnaire data were available. They had reported on infant temperament at four months postpartum and parenting stress, toddler socioemotional competence and problem behaviours at 18 months postpartum. Path analyses demonstrated two distinct pathways from prenatal hardiness (one via parenting stress and the other via maternal emotional availability) that indirectly related to all indices of toddler socioemotional competence. The first path indicated that higher scores for hardiness were related to lower parenting stress scores which, in turn, were significantly associated with maternal reports of greater toddler socio-emotional competence and less problematic behaviour (all ps < .001) as well as more optimal observed child emotional availability (p < .05): toddlers who are more involving of and responsive to their mothers. The second path indicated that higher scores for hardiness were associated with higher maternal sensitivity which, in turn, was significantly associated with more optimal child emotional availability (all ps < .01). Furthermore, hardier mothers had perceived their toddlers’ temperaments as less difficult during infancy (p < .001). This related to reports of less parenting stress (p < .01) during toddlerhood and, indirectly via less parenting stress, to reports of less problem behaviour (p < .01). In summary, the combined results of the three studies reported here add to a small but growing body of research that has identified maternal hardiness as an important influence in parenting and child development. These findings also reveal that maternal psychological maturity is related to maternal sensitivity and that the two together provide a positive parenting context for children’s self-regulatory and socioemotional development in the second post-natal year. It appears that a mother’s capacity to view herself, her child and her circumstances in a flexible and adaptive way allows her to engage with her child with sensitivity and provide the necessary structure and boundaries in order to effectively meet her child’s self-regulatory and socio emotional developmental needs during toddlerhood.