Eastern Magazine
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Who's at Risk

by Jeff Mortimer

at risk

It’s often been said that child abuse is hereditary. Sarah Ahlfs-Dunn hopes her work can help break the dismal cycle that gives rise to that formulation.

No, she’s not a geneticist (it’s a metaphor, after all). She’s a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Eastern Michigan University whose dissertation research is expanding understanding of troubled mother-child relationships and how they might be healed, or even headed off.

Psychologists call the feelings and attitudes a mother has toward her child, both before and after birth, “maternal representations.” When these representations evince negative or unrealistic perceptions, they’re termed “disrupted.”

“By the time women reach their third trimester of pregnancy, they typically start to form ideas and impressions, primarily unconscious, about the baby they are carrying and who they will be as a mother to the baby and what their relationship with the baby will be like,” says Ahlfs-Dunn. “Maternal representations are really important because they influence the mother’s behavior with her baby as well as how she interprets and anticipates her baby’s behavior, and that can be linked with outcomes to the baby.”

Psychologists who study infant mental health and the effects of domestic violence on children have long recognized this phenomenon, but it wasn’t until recently that it could be quantified. In 2009, Diane Benoit, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, developed a system for coding data from interviews with mothers for characteristics of disrupted representations.

Ahlfs-Dunn was the first person in the United States to be trained in this system, by Benoit herself, and she’s applying it to a vast set of interviews conducted, from pregnancy to three years after birth, with more than 100 high-risk women from communities around Eastern.

“When you are trained in this coding scheme,” says Ahlfs-Dunn, “you learn to look really closely in these transcripts for key things like the mother laughing when talking about the baby being in distress, being really hostile and negative about the baby, or withdrawing or being helpless or fearful when the baby is in need. The more these come up as a pattern for the mother, the more problematic that is.”

As Alissa Huth-Bocks, associate professor of psychology and Ahlfs-Dunn’s mentor, points out, such representations “have been shown to be related to serious parenting difficulties, including maltreatment, and serious social-emotional problems in the young child. Sarah is doing some amazing research that will make big contributions to our field.”

It could certainly be a boon to clinicians. “We tend to find that traumatized mothers have these difficulties, so this is something that would be very important and of interest to people working with traumatized women,” says Huth-Bocks.
“If we have a better sense of what can predict disrupted representations,” adds Ahlfs-Dunn, “then when they see a mother with a history of trauma that can affect mom-baby relationships, they can assess for the mother’s representations and do the interventions based on where their needs are.”

Her work has attracted attention in its most tangible form. In the last year, Ahlfs-Dunn has received external grants, totaling $10,000, from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the International Psychoanalytic Association to support her dissertation. “I believe she is the first student in our doctoral program to receive so much external funding,” says Huth-Bocks.

Another first is in the offing. Ahlfs-Dunn and Huth-Bocks have organized and will present the first-ever symposium focused on disrupted maternal relationships at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in April, featuring four presentations of research conducted in labs in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands.

“It’s so new, so there’s still so much that can be learned,” says Ahlfs-Dunn. “I hope after I get my PhD that I have a research career and this continues to be a big piece of it. I really believe in and value the power of early experiences.”

Choosing Eastern for graduate school wasn’t exactly a close call for her. “I was really interested in how mothers’ experiences can be passed down and impact their children,” she says, “so I was looking for researchers and professors who had done work in that area, and I had already become interested in maternal representations from looking at Alissa’s work.

“How grateful I am to be here. I would not be able to do this research that I feel very passionate about without the great support that I have received.”