The Effects of Prematurity on the Social and Emotional Development of School Age Children: Discussion
By Michele Bell
Overall, the results of the current study support the hypothesis that the prolonged separation of mothers from their premature infants negatively impacts on mother's mental state following the discharge of her infant. Furthermore, evidence was found for the prediction that mother's depressive state, following the discharge of her infant, had a direct effect on later childhood functioning. That is, increased levels of depression were found to be directly associated with an increase in internalising, externalising and poorer social behaviours amongst their children. The overall aim of the current study was to investigate the ego maturity of premature children and whether or not the prolonged separation of infants from their mother's negatively impacts upon the developing ego as represented by Mahler, Pine and Bergman (1975), concerning the psychological birth of the human infant.
The prediction that the prolonged separation of infants from their mothers would negatively impact on children's ego development over and above mother's emotional state was supported. In addition, some support was found for the hypothesis that ego maturity mediates the relationship between mother's depression and premature children's poorer social functioning. However, the hypothesis that poor ego maturity would mediate the relationship between mother's negative emotionality and their child's internalising behaviours failed to be supported in the current study. The prediction that externalising behaviours would not be associated with either ego maturity or prolonged hospital care, was also supported by the results of this study. Finally, the prediction that social problems would be related to the development of attention difficulties in premature children was also supported.
Premature mothers emotional life
The findings that the separation of mothers from their premature infants combined with an increase in maternal caring anxiety leads to depressive mood was consistent with Feldman, Weller, Leckman, Kuint and Eidelman (1999), investigation into the psychological processes of a mothers mental life following the birth of a premature infant. Guided by Winnicott's (1956) psychoanalytical account of a mother's mental life during the bonding stage, Feldman et al. reported that mothers who were separated for brief periods of time displayed a significant increase in maternal separation anxiety. However, with prolonged separation, the mother's mental state, which is characteristic of 'primary maternal preoccupations' develops into a state of depression and ultimately limits the mother's capacity to engage in the pleasurable, relationship-building aspect of bonding. While the evidence in the current study is retrospective, the strong suggestion is that the prolonged separation of mothers from their premature infants in the early postnatal period leads to an increase in caring anxiety which in turn leads to depressive mood. Moreover, the current study assessed mothers' level of depression after the infant had returned home which suggests that the effects of prolonged separation may not be immediately reversible following the discharge of her premature infant.
Taken together these findings suggest that a highly anxious state in mother's of premature infants may indeed play some part in the causation of depressive mood following the transition from hospital to home. However, it should be noted that length of stay also directly and independently led to mother's self-reported depressive mood for reasons not explained in the model. A possible explanation for these unexpected findings may be that mothers' negative emotional state following the apparent recovery of her infant reflects further concerns about possible disabilities or other later difficulties of the infant (Minde, 2000; Goldberg & DiVitto, 2002).
The effects of mothers emotional state on premature children's development.
Regarding the findings that mother's depressive mood is directly associated
with children's adverse social, internalising and externalising behaviours
is also consistent with a large body of literature that documents similar
behavioural outcomes in full-term children whose mothers suffer from post-natal
depression (for a review see, Gelfand & Teti, 1990). However, the
results of this study point to the sensitivity of premature infants' to
mother's sub-clinical symptoms of depression. In the current study, 22%
of mothers reported feeling 'often depressed', 30% reported only a slight
increase in depressive feelings and an additional 12% of mothers reported
being diagnosed with a depressive mood in the premature group. Corroborating
previous research (e.g., Poehlmann & Fiese 2001), these results provide
tentative support for the notion that premature children are particularly
susceptible to both clinical and mild disruptions in mother's emotional
state in early infancy.
The effects of prematurity on children's ego development.
Indeed, another set of events which negatively affects premature infants
psychological development appears to be the prolonged separation the infant
experiences from his or her nursing mother. That is, the prediction that
prolonged hospital care would negatively impact on children's ego development,
regardless of mother's emotional state, was supported by the results of
this research. Consistent with Eckerman and Oehler (1992) observations,
the premature neonate appears to be a highly organised entity, with interpersonal
capacities operating during the neonatal period. In the current study,
the mean length of hospitalisation for premature infants was 81 days,
which according to Object Relations theory concerning the psychological
birth (Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975) indicates that many of these
infants may have reached the symbiotic stage of psychological development
during their hospital stay.
In the case of the premature infant, this developmental stage occurs
under very different circumstances; in a newborn intensive care unit (NICU),
and in the face of intrusive and often stressful medical and nursing procedures
(Eckerman & Oehler, 1992). Furthermore, mothers are acquainted with
their infants for relatively brief periods, largely separated in time
and not necessarily related to feeding or nurturing the infant (Field,
1990; Goldberg & DiVitto, 2002). Therefore, the predicability of the
nursing mother alleviating tensions from within is absent for the premature
infant during their hospital stay.
In addition, these findings are consistent with Avery and Ryan (1988) who report that poor ego maturity is predicative of problematic social functioning in early childhood. However, there were some findings which contradicted this idea. For example, mother's depressive mood was also directly associated with the poorer social functioning of children over and above children's ego maturity. In addition, ego maturity failed to mediate the relationship between mother's negative emotional state and children's later internalising problems as anticipated. Rather, the internalising and poor social behaviours of premature children, revealed a direct association with mother's depressive mood.
A methodological explanation for this unexpected pattern of results may
be that the ego measure (AORI) utilised in the current study failed to
tap into the emotional problems representing depression and anxiety in
children. In the present study, items representing emotional disturbances
were modified or excluded from the study to ensure their applicability
to children aged between 9 and 12. This may have influenced the absence
of an indirect effect through ego maturity due to the lack of items tapping
into emotional disturbances in children. Thus, methodological issues may
have accounted for these results.
Consistent with previous research (e.g., Sykes et al, 1997; Schothorst and van Engeland, 1996), the hypothesis that the impaired social functioning of premature children would predict later attention problems was supported in the current study. That is the poor social functioning of prematurely born children explained 25% of the variation in attention problems. These findings imply that the poor social functioning of children, who were hospitalised for prolonged periods, may well be an indication of future attention problems that could be conceptualised as a general immaturity relating, at least partially, to ego development.
The Effects of Prematurity on the Social and Emotional Development of School Age Children
Helen Harrison's Prematurity Observations
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