The impact of maternal alexithymia on parenting behaviours in the context of substance use disorders
Background: Parental Substance Use Disorder (SUD) constitutes a complex risk condition for parenting, affecting parenting behaviors, parent-child relationships, and child development. Empirical evidence suggests that individuals with SUD present high rates of psychopathology, especially of alexithymia, which could additionally compromise the quality of parenting. Difficulties in acknowledging one’s own feelings could compromise the parents’ ability to engage in emotional exchanges with their children. Despite the impact of alexithymia on caregiving abilities has been consistently confirmed by previous literature, up to now no study has ever investigated this characteristic in the context of parental SUD. To fill this gap, the present study aimed to investigate the impact of maternal alexithymia on parenting behaviors in mothers with SUD.
Methods: The study involved 57 mothers (M age=29.41 yrs , SD=7.04) with SUD and their children (M age=16 mths, SD=22.16), in treatment in an Italian Therapeutic Community (TC). After admission to the facility, mothers were assessed with respect to alexithymia (Toronto Alexithymia Scale; TAS by Bagby et al. 1992), and parenting behaviors (Emotional Availability Scales; EAS by Biringen, 2008), which were rated during videotaped free-play parent-child interactions.
Results: Consistently with the previous literature, mothers presented high rates of alexithymia and showed low-quality parenting behaviors. Specifically, they showed low sensitivity and structuring, as well as high intrusiveness in the mother child interactions. Furthermore, a significant impact of maternal alexithymia on parenting behaviors was found, confirming that mothers presenting difficulties in identifying and communicating their feelings tend to interact in less functional ways with their children.
Conclusions: Parental SUD represents a complex risk condition for parenting, which could impact on caretaking abilities both at a behavioral (i.e. observed parenting behaviors) and at a psychological level (i.e. alexithymia). Clinical implications of the findings in terms of treatment are discussed.