The Role of Separation Anxiety in Mothers’ Use of Autonomy Support: An Observational Study

Abstract

Parental separation anxiety has been identified as a detrimental factor for parent-adolescent relationship quality and, ultimately, for adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment. However, few studies have examined how separation anxiety is related to parents’ style of interaction with their adolescent, which is unfortunate as this interaction style could explain why separation anxiety is related to negative outcomes. The present study (a) examined the association between maternal separation anxiety and mothers’ autonomy-supportive, relative to controlling, conversation style as observed in mother-adolescent interactions about the adolescents’ friendships, and (b) investigated the link between maternal separation anxiety and mothers’ personal experiences during the conversation. A total of 62 mother–adolescent dyads (M age mothers = 44 years, M age adolescents = 14 years) were willing to participate in this study. After mothers filled out a measure of separation anxiety, mothers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling practices were observed and coded during a 10-min conversation. Further, mothers reported on their emotional and motivational experiences during the conversation. Mothers high on separation anxiety were observed to be less autonomy-supportive and to experience the conversation as more stressful (e.g., more pressure, more tension, and more relief at the end). Clinically, our results suggest that maternal separation anxiety is an important target for intervention and prevention efforts aimed at promoting autonomy-supportive parenting.

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Acknowledgments

Author contributions

D.W. designed and executed the study, performed the data analyses, and wrote the paper. B.S. and M.V. collaborated with the design, data analyses and writing of the study. S.V.P. and K.B collaborated with the writing of the manuscript and editing of the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Dorien Wuyts.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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All procedures performed involving human participants in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Ghent University Institutional Review Board and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consents were obtained from all participants included in the study.

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Wuyts, D., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M. et al. The Role of Separation Anxiety in Mothers’ Use of Autonomy Support: An Observational Study. J Child Fam Stud 26, 1949–1957 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0707-7

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Keywords

  • Separation anxiety
  • Autonomy-supportive versus controlling behaviors
  • Observational study
  • Adolescence
  • Parent-child interaction