Abstract: Early Parenting in the Context of Trauma (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Early Parenting in the Context of Trauma

Saturday, January 16, 2016: 8:30 AM
Meeting Room Level-Franklin Square (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Brenda Jones Harden, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park, MD
Tiffany Martoccio, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Lisa Berlin, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD

Victims of childhood maltreatment are at increased risk for intimate partner violence and for perpetrating problematic parenting behaviors themselves (e.g., Bensley et al., 2015; Berlin et al., 2013). There is limited research, however, on how the experiences of childhood and adult trauma may interact to affect parenting behavior. The goal of the current study was to examine the relations among mothers’ experiences of trauma and observed parenting behaviors. In particular, we examined intimate partner violence as a moderator of the associations between maternal history of maltreatment and observed sensitive and intrusive parenting behaviors in a sample of low-income predominantly Latina mothers and their infants.


Participants were 109 low-income mother-infant dyads receiving home-based Early Head Start services. Mean maternal age was 30.63 years (SD=6.04); mean infant age was 13.13 months (SD=4.13); 60% of the infants were male. Mothers were primarily Latina (88%). About half (48%) had at least a high school education. Data were collected concurrently in participants’ homes, in either Spanish or English. Self-report instruments included the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein & Fink, 1998); the Hurts, Insults, Threatens, and Screams (Sherin et al., 1998); and a demographic questionnaire. Parenting behaviors were coded from video recordings of 10-minute, semi-structured mother-infant play interactions (using the Three Bag assessment, Brady-Smith et al., 2000).


Over one third of mothers (36%) experienced childhood abuse or neglect (CAN) and approximately one quarter (26%) endorsed exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV). Bivariate analyses indicated that mothers’ CAN was marginally positively correlated with adult IPV (r = .17, p = .10) and that adult IPV was positively correlated with observed parenting intrusiveness (r = .23, p < .05).

Controlling for demographic variables (maternal age and education; child age and gender), there were significant interactions of past CAN and present IPV predicting maternal sensitivity and intrusiveness. For mothers with lower IPV scores, more childhood maltreatment predicted less maternal sensitivity. For mothers with higher IPV scores, however, surprisingly, more childhood maltreatment predicted greater maternal sensitivity. In addition, for mothers with higher IPV scores, lower childhood maltreatment predicted less maternal intrusiveness. For mothers with lower IPV scores, childhood maltreatment and maternal intrusiveness were not related.


Our findings are consistent with research that shows that experiences of IPV result in compromised parenting (Jaffee et al., 2012) and with literature suggesting that some mothers compensate for their experiences of trauma by becoming more supportive parents (Levendosky et al., 2003). Such findings can inform parenting interventions for mothers with trauma histories, and potentially buffer children against the adverse effects of maternal trauma (O’Connor & Parfitt, 2009). Specifically, in addition to coaching to enhance parenting skills, trauma-focused interventions for parents could address their physical and psychological safety, their well-being and resilience, and their linkages with therapeutic supports (Jones Harden, 2015).