What Are the Cognitive and Affective Processes Enabling Sensitive-Responsive Caregiving?

The Role of Cognitive Control in Parents’ Ability to Understand Their Child’s Mind (“Mentalizing”)

(1) Do Mothers’ Executive Functions Contribute to Their Understanding of Their Child’s Mind?

Maternal executive functions (a set of general-purpose processes aimed at achieving controlled, goal-directed behavior) are associated with more accurate mentalizing about infants in real-time (“online mentalization”), and more complex and elaborated stable representations of the child in preschool (“offline mentalization”)- especially when the child is perceived as more difficult, but not under the stressful context of raising a preterm child.

(2) How Do Parents Keep Track of Changes in Infants’ Mental States in Real-time? Development of the Mental-Event Segmentation Task

I have been working on developing a new task to assess the role of working memory updating (the ability to keep track of changes in relevant information) in real-time (“online”) controlled forms of mentalizing about infants, in collaboration with Profs. Yoav Kessler and Naama Atzaba-Poria. The aim of this task is to measure parents’ understanding of infants’ ongoing activities in terms of events separated by changes in mental states, based on the notion of event segmentation (see Zacks, 2020).

Parental Mentalization and Sensitive-Responsiveness Under Stressful Caregiving Contexts

(1) Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacted Parental Mentalization as Measured on Parenting Social Media?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful and demanding time for parents, possibly impacting parents’ ability to mentalize about their children. To examine this, we sampled parental posts from parenting subreddits on Reddit, posted during the pandemic (March-April 2020 lockdown, July-August 2020 postlockdown) and during the same periods in 2019. Parents, especially fathers on fathers-specific subreddits, used less mental state language in their posts about parenting during lockdown compared to the year prior to the pandemic. Parents also focused less on others when mentioning mental states in their posts, suggesting decreased consideration of others’ experiences during the pandemic. These findings support the view that stressful and demanding caregiving conditions impair parental mentalization — times in which this capacity may be especially important for family functioning and adjustment– and the impact of caregiving stress and demands may look different among mothers and fathers.

(2) Is Maternal Mentalization Related to Maternal Behavior Under Stressful Caregiving Contexts?

Stressful caregiving contexts (raising a preterm infant, parenting in a highly-chaotic home) dampen the contribution of maternal mentalization to individual differences in (1) sensitive-responsive caregiving in mother-infant interactions and (2) positive family triadic interactions (mother-father-infant). These findings suggest that under stressful caregiving contexts, parental behavior may rely less on “high-order” reflective processes, such that these contexts possibly interfere with the translation of controlled cognition into sensitive behavior.

Maternal Perinatal Anxiety and Neurocognitive Processing of Infant Affective Cues

(1) Is Perinatal Maternal Anxiety Related to Neural Processing of Infant Affective Cues?

Do anxiety symptoms in the perinatal period impact mothers’ understanding and processing of infant affective signals? In this review paper, we summarize current knowledge on maternal anxiety in pregnancy and postpartum and neural responding to happy, sad, and neutral infant faces, identify limitations in the current body of research, and outline a road map for future research utilizing neuroimaging to understand the impact of perinatal anxiety on neurocognitive processes implicated in sensitive responsiveness.

(2) Early Mechanisms in the Intergenerational Transmission of Anxiety: A Computational Approach to Understanding Maternal Biased Processing of Infant Cues

In this ongoing study with Dr. Helena Rutherford, evidence accumulation modeling will be used to tap into the impact of postpartum anxiety on the temporal dynamics of biased processing infant affective cues, maternal sensitive-responsive behavior in mother-infant interactions, and temperamental precursors of anxiety in infancy.

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