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PTSD and Dysfunctional Parenting: Emotional and Biological Mechanisms

Molly Reis Franz, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Women are disproportionately at risk for developing PTSD following exposure to trauma. Among its many harmful effects, PTSD is associated with a range of negative family outcomes, including impairments in parenting behaviors. Despite the prevalence of PTSD and its impact on parenting, little is known about the mechanisms responsible for this association. The present project addressed this gap by examining the impact of PTSD on dysfunctional parenting behaviors in a lab setting. Based on prior theory and empirical evidence, I expected that a diagnosis of PTSD would be associated with more dysfunctional parenting (i.e., harsh/overreactive and lax/permissive behaviors) during routine mother-child discipline encounters. Further, drawing on research linking negative emotion and greater cortisol dysregulation to both PTSD and dysfunctional parenting, I expected emotional and physiological reactivity to mediate the relation between PTSD status and parenting behaviors. To test these hypotheses, 78 mothers and their 18- to 36-month-old children completed a task designed to elicit parental responses to typical instances of child misbehavior. Mothers then viewed a video of the interaction and provided in-the-moment ratings of their experienced emotions. Salivary cortisol was collected from mothers prior and subsequent to the lab paradigm to assess stress-related cortisol reactivity. PTSD diagnosis was assessed via the CAPS-5 interview. Findings revealed that mothers with PTSD were more likely to engage in lax parenting behaviors during the discipline encounter. Contrary to hypotheses, PTSD status was not significantly associated with overreactive parenting behaviors, and negative emotion and cortisol reactivity did not mediate relations between PTSD and dysfunctional parenting, when controlling for important covariates. Findings suggest that PTSD symptoms might increase mothers’ tendency to avoid making effortful attempts to manage child misbehavior during challenging parent-child interactions. Mothers with PTSD might benefit from interventions that help them set consistent limits in the context of everyday discipline encounters with their children.

Subject Area

Clinical psychology|Individual & family studies

Recommended Citation

Franz, Molly Reis, "PTSD and Dysfunctional Parenting: Emotional and Biological Mechanisms" (2019). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10831231.