Women who experienced emotional trauma, abuse, or neglect as children are, according to new research, less willing to discuss emotional experiences with their own children. Kristin Valentino, an assistant professor of psychology at Notre Dame, along with undergraduate student Taylor Thomas, investigated a sample of low-income mothers who underwent some form of childhood trauma.
The women exhibited “traumatic avoidance symptoms,” which are characterized by being unwilling to discuss emotions, memories, or thoughts related to their traumas. Valentino and Thomas found that mothers who have traumatic avoidance symptoms are, when speaking to their own children about emotional topics, more likely to keep their conversations short and relatively shallow. The mothers also tended to ask closed-end questions that did not encourage children to share about their own emotions.
This is problematic because “traumatic avoidance symptoms have been shown to have a negative impact on the cognitive and emotional development of children,” as Valentino, who studies at-risk children, stated. Valentino also explained that this research is important because it contributes to understanding of how a mother’s past trauma relates to her ability to communicate and interact with her child. Furthermore, “This finding also has implications for intervention work, since avoidance that is used as a coping mechanism is likely to further impair psychological functioning,” said Valentino.
Valentino also conducted a study, published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect in March, that studied interventions for mothers with traumatic avoidance symptoms or who had experienced childhood trauma. She found that the mothers could be taught to use more emotion-rich reminiscing with young children. This strategy was linked to subsequent improvement in the children’s cognitive abilities such as memory and language development.