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Unresolved Loss in New Mothers Can Lead to Frightening Behavior

April 5, 2007

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, 573-882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The lesson here is pretty simple: if someone is having a baby soon, unresolved personal issues must be settled, or it might rub off on the child. This was the general conclusion of a recent study from researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Texas-Austin, which found that mothers with unresolved trauma or deaths in their past were more likely to show potentially harmful maternal behaviors to their babies. It was one of the first studies to deal with the relationship between unsettled trauma, loss, attachment and parenting.

"We were looking for some of the different circumstances that have an impact on parenting," said Kim Leon, assistant professor in human development and family studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences and state specialist for MU Extension. "It's not the traumatic events themselves that have an effect, but how mothers have dealt these things in their minds."

The study found that women who lost a parent and had not completed the grieving process were more likely to demonstrate "frightened" (appearing afraid of the infant) or "frightening" (sudden voice changes or movements that are scary, not playful) behavior toward their infants. It's believed that if the general process of grieving most people go through is unfinished, it becomes a powerful unresolved issue, and the parent is caught in a search process, unable to accept the loss and move on.

"The theory behind this is that when people become parents, some of these unresolved feelings related to the loss of their own parents affect them in strange ways," Leon said.

In past studies, frightened/frightening behavior on the part of parents has been related to an attachment pattern in children, disorganized attachment, which may be associated with later problems such as poor peer relationships, aggression, anxiety or depression.

Researchers in this study first questioned mothers about their past experiences to discover any unresolved incidents, and then observed them and their infants in their homes, particularly during regular activities such as changing clothes, playing and feeding. Other researchers reviewed videotapes of observations and rated mothers' parenting behaviors, looking for frightened/frightening behaviors, using a rating scale originally developed by Mary Main and Erik Hesse at the University of California, Berkeley.

Other factors were examined in the study, such as general patterns of insensitive parenting, including rejecting or inconsistent parenting behaviors.

The study was meant to highlight something clinicians and counselors should be aware of, though Leon does believe a combination of therapy and training in appropriate parenting would be beneficial to parents with unresolved trauma and loss. While expectant parents may receive some preparation for the basic tasks of parenting in childbirth classes, Leon said that there is a lack of emotional support during a time that is very stressful for new parents.

"Most of the time, parents aren't aware of these things, and simply making them aware that what they're doing can be harmful is probably not enough for a change," Leon said.

The study, "Does expectant mothers' unresolved trauma predict frightened/frightening maternal behavior? Risk and protective factors," was published in the journal, Development and Psychopathology.