Doctoral Dissertation
University of Oregon


Defended & Completed May 2016
PhD granted 2017 after clinical internship

Advisor Freyd, Jennifer J.

Dissertation Abstract

The purpose of the current study was to investigate the dynamic process of disclosure within the adolescent–mother relationship by examining maternal characteristics that encourage adolescent disclosure of distressing experiences and risk factors that may interfere with mothers’ abilities to be supportive. A community sample of 66 mothers and their adolescent children (M = 14.31 years, 58% female) participated. The adolescents disclosed an emotionally distressing experience to their mothers for the first time.

 Mothers’ validating behaviors and emotional distress in response to their adolescents’ expressions of negative emotion were predictive of adolescent disclosure. Adolescents who perceived their mothers to be validating of their negative emotions made more substantive disclosures and found disclosing to their mothers to be more beneficial. In contrast, greater maternal emotional distress was associated with less substantive disclosures, and maternal emotional distress was further indirectly associated with less substantive and beneficial disclosures through less maternal validation of negative emotion.

A developmental model of maternal risk for emotional distress in response to adolescent negative emotion was also supported. Maternal history of childhood trauma perpetrated by someone close to the mother (i.e., high betrayal) was associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing subsequent interpersonal trauma as an early adult; maternal interpersonal trauma in early adulthood was associated with mothers’ increased difficulty regulating their emotions; and greater maternal emotion dysregulation was associated with higher levels of maternal distress in response to adolescent negative emotion. An indirect association between maternal childhood high betrayal trauma and emotional distress was also supported through continued trauma and emotion regulation difficulties.

These findings suggest that when disclosing distressing experiences to their mothers, adolescents consider how validating their mothers are of their expression of negative emotion, as well as how distressing their emotions are for their mothers. Mothers’ histories of childhood trauma, ongoing interpersonal trauma in adulthood, and emotion regulation difficulties were further implicated in mothers’ reactions to their adolescents’ expressions of negative emotion. Interventions targeted to increase maternal emotion regulation skills and validation of children’s negative emotions may be an effective way to promote better mother–adolescent communication, especially in regard to distressing experiences.

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