Emotion Socialization in Military Families: Associations with Parent PTSD Symptoms and Child Psychosocial Functioning

Sarah Giff

Major Professor: Keith D Renshaw, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Tara Chaplin, Timothy Curby

Online Location, Online
July 14, 2022, 09:30 AM to 11:30 AM


Among the many difficulties that military families face are the experience of a parent deploying to a warzone and the subsequent risk of that parent returning with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD are associated with parenting difficulties and, in some cases, children’s negative psychosocial outcomes. On the other hand, many children in military families show high levels of strength and resilience. The ways that parents teach children about emotion (emotion socialization; ES) may play a key role in child outcomes in these families, but supportive ES may be more difficult in the context of PTSD symptoms. This dissertation presents two studies that address the need for more empirical information regarding ES behaviors in deployed and non-deployed parents, how ES may be related to PTSD symptoms, and how child outcomes may be influenced by ES in the context of PTSD. Both projects use existing data collected from 224 National Guard/Reserve (NG/R) families, with deployed fathers, non-deployed mothers, and a child between the ages of 4 and 13. Questionnaires were collected regarding demographic and deployment information, deployed father’s PTSD symptoms, and children’s psychosocial adjustment (internalizing problems, externalizing problems, strengths). Families engaged in parent-child discussions, which were videotaped and coded for observed ES behaviors.

The first manuscript used latent profile analyses to identify five profiles of parental ES: Balanced/Supportive (28 fathers, 24 mothers), Disengaged/Unemotional (71 fathers, 71 mothers), Unsupportive/Distressed (37 fathers, 30 mothers), Unsupportive/Positive (40 fathers, 39 mothers), and Involved/Emotive/Angry (29 fathers, 37 mothers). Initial multinomial logistic regressions of each parent’s profile membership on fathers’ PTSD symptoms alone revealed no significant associations. Subsequent multinomial logistic regressions predicting profile membership from PTSD symptoms while simultaneously accounting for other family factors (child age, sex, and emotions, and deployment length) revealed that greater father PTSD symptoms were associated with a greater likelihood of mothers being in the Balanced/Supportive profile compared to the Disengaged/Unemotional profile, particularly when children displayed average or below-average levels of emotion during discussion tasks. No other significant associations with PTSD symptoms were detected. Overall, in contrast to a priori hypotheses, the majority of these findings indicated that PTSD symptoms did not play a significant role in parental ES behaviors.

The second manuscript further examined how PTSD symptoms and ES profile membership related to children’s internalizing symptoms, externalizing symptoms, and strengths. Mother, father, and teacher reports of child outcomes were modeled to generate a factor score for each of these three outcomes for each child. I then evaluated relationships of those outcomes to (a) fathers’ PTSD symptom severity (via correlations and then structural equation modeling [SEM]), (b) fathers’ and mothers’ ES parenting profiles (via two separate MANOVAs), and (c) the interactions among these variables (via two multi-group SEMs, using each parents’ profiles as a grouping variable). In both bivariate and multivariate analyses, PTSD symptom severity was significantly, positively related to internalizing problems and significantly negatively related to children’s strengths. MANOVAs revealed significant child outcome differences by mothers’ profiles only, with children whose mothers were in the Unsupportive/Distressed profile showing significantly higher externalizing scores compared to children with mothers in other profiles. The final set of analyses revealed that the significant associations among PTSD symptoms and children’s internalizing problems were primarily present for fathers in the Angry/Involved/Emotive profile, and the negative relationship between PTSD symptoms and strengths was maintained primarily when fathers were in the Angry/Involved/Emotive profile or when mothers were in the Balanced/Supportive profile. There was also a significant positive relationship between PTSD symptoms and externalizing problems when fathers were in the Angry/Involved/Emotive profile or when mothers were in the Balanced/Supportive profile. Together, the results of both papers suggest that PTSD symptoms are negatively associated with child outcomes, but effects are small, and ES parenting behaviors function fairly independently of PTSD symptoms. These patterns suggest there are likely many inter-connected factors in the family system beyond the experience of PTSD symptoms (which is commonly a sole focus of research in this area) that warrant consideration when trying to understand what contributes to risk and resilience in NG/R families.