Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




This study was designed to systematically investigate personality, psychophysiological, and cognitive appraisal variables in three groups of mothers, i.e. abusive, neglectful, and low-income control. The first two groups of mothers had been investigated by a county welfare agency and an abuse or neglect charge in the previous 12 months was substantiated with the mother identified as the main perpetrator. These two groups consisted of 14 and 13 mothers respectively, who had been randomly chosen from pools of 26 and 27 mothers respectively. A group of 15 mothers receiving aid from the same county agency was randomly chosen from a pool of 20 mothers and served as the control group. This group of mothers had been characterized by their caseworkers as performing an adequate job of parenting, and had not had a report of child maltreatment substantiated against them. The mothers were — recruited from a study of parenting attitudes and provided with $10, babysitting, and transportation to a neutral testing site. All subjects completed a Mini-Mult, the Repression-Sensitization Scale (R-S), the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT), the Multiple Affect Adjective Checklist (MAACL), and the Socialization Scale from the California Psychological Inventory. The mothers then listened to a nine-minute audiotape containing nine one—minute segments of either white noise, tone, or an infant's cry. During this tape, heart rate, finger blood volume, and skin resistance measures were recorded. After the audiotape was finished, the mothers rated six dimensions of the infant's cry on a semantic differential: Age, Length, Loudness, Irritating, Anger, and Demanding.

The results indicated that the three groups did not differ on most demographic variables, i.e. Age, Education, Marital Status, Income, or Mean Age of Children. However, a significant difference was noted on the variable Total Number of Children, with the two groups of maltreating mothers averaging approximately one more child than the control mothers. In addition, the three groups differed significantly on the F, D, Pd, Pt, and Sc scales from the Mini-Mult, the Anxiety and Hostility scales on the MAACL, the Socialization Scale, and the GEFT. On the Semantic differential scale, the mothers differed on Demanding, Angry, and Irritating. On the psychophysiological variables, the groups did not differ on the cardiovascular measures, but differed significantly on skin resistance measures. Utilizing a combination of personality, psychophysiological, and cry rating variables, a discriminant analysis was successful in discriminating 80% of the subjects. Two significant discriminant functions resulted, the first defined primarily by the Pd scale from the Mini-Mult and the second by Demanding from the cry rating scale.

The pattern of results from the measures of skin resistance suggested that both neglectful and abusive mothers were more easily aroused and remain aroused for longer periods of time than did the control mothers, who habituated more rapidly. The neglectful mothers showed even less ability to differentiate the audiotape stimuli, responding with greater arousal across all stimuli. The two groups did not differ on initial level of arousal to the two cry segments, but the control group habituated much more rapidly on each occasion.

With regard to the personality variables, the neglectful mothers were clearly the most pathological as a group, followed closely by the abusive mothers. In addition, the pattern that emerged suggested that maltreating mothers as a group were more hostile, impulsive, more field- dependent, had more interpersonal difficulties, were more easily overwhelmed than control mothers, and responded less appropriately on their ratings of the infant's cry.

This study also suggested that a possible avenue of intervention may be to use cognitive relabelling to assist maltreating mothers in learning to inhibit their inappropriate responses to their children's behavior.