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Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1994;59(2-3):208-27.

The effects of mother's physical and emotional unavailability on emotion regulation.

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  • 1Department of Pediatrics, University of Miami, School of Medicine, FL 33101.

Abstract

In summary, emotion dysregulation can develop from brief or more prolonged separations from the mother as well as from the more disturbing effects of her emotional unavailability, such as occurs when she is depressed. Harmonious interaction with the mother or the primary caregiver (attunement) of the mother's physical unavailability were seen in studies of separations from the mother due to her hospitalization or to her conference trips. These separations affected the infants' play behaviors and sleep patterns. Comparisons between hospitalizations and conference trips, however, suggested that the infants' behaviors were more negatively affected by the hospitalizations than the conference trips. This probably related to these being hospitalizations for the birth of another baby--the infants no longer had the special, exclusive relationship with their mothers after the arrival of the new sibling. This finding highlights the critical importance of emotional availability. The mother had returned from the hospital, but, while she was no longer physically unavailable, she was now emotionally unavailable. Emotional unavailability was investigated in an acute form by comparing two laboratory situations, the still face paradigm and the momentary leave taking. The still face had more negative effects on the infants' interaction behaviors than the physical separation. The most extreme form of emotional unavailability, mother's depression, had the most negative effects. The disorganization or emotion dysregulation in this case is more prolonged. Changes in physiology (heart rate, vagal tone, and cortisol levels), in play behavior, affect, activity level, and sleep organization as well as other regulating functions such as eating and toileting, and even in the immune system persist for the duration of the mother's depression. My colleagues and I have suggested that these changes occur because the infant is being chronically deprived of an important external regulator of stimulation (the mother) and thus fails to develop emotion regulation or organized behavioral and physiological rhythms. Finally, individual differences were discussed, including those related to maturity (e.g., prematurity) and temperament/personality (e.g., uninhibited/inhibited or externalizing/internalizing) and those deriving from degree of mother-infant mismatch, such as dissimilar temperaments. Further investigations are needed to determine how long the effects of such early dysregulation endure, how they affect the infant's long-term development, how their effect differs across individuals and across development, and whether they can be modified by early intervention. Eventually, with increasing age, developing skills, and diversity of experience, infants develop individualized regulatory styles. That process, and how it is affected by the mother's physical and emotional unavailability, also requires further investigation.

PMID:
7984162
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

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