What is it about?

We assessed parental reflective functioning (PRF) with the Parent Development Interview – Revised and investigated its association with parenting behaviors, that is, autonomy support and psychological control (operationalized in terms of behaviors promoting and undermining autonomy relatedness), and stress responses (cortisol reactivity) during a parent–child conflict interaction task (Family Interaction Task). Participants were 40 mothers and 28 fathers, who took part in the study together with their adolescent children (N = 49). Mothers had significantly lower PRF and displayed more psychologically controlling behaviors in the interaction with their children than fathers. Rather than sex per se, high levels of PRF were the best predictors of autonomy support, whereas lower levels of PRF predicted more psychological control. Higher levels of PRF were also the best predictor for lower levels of parenting stress. Stress in the context of parenting was neither related to autonomy support nor to psychological control, which were best predicted by divorced family status and, for psychological control only, by parental sex. The findings point to the potential utility of interventions aimed at improving PRF, especially in divorced families, given its protective effect on parenting behaviors and stress in the context of parenting.

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Why is it important?

This is one of the first studies on PRF (parental reflective functioning) combining a narrative and an experimental approach and providing evidence that the relationship between reflective functioning and stress is not unidirectional. Furthermore, the current study provides new important evidence on sex differences in PRF, on the effects of divorce-status on PRF, and on the relation between PRF, parenting behaviors and cortisol responses. In addition, and to the best of our knowledge this is first study of this kind to include a sample of fathers, who’s role in family theory and research has gained more visibility over the last years. Finally, this study identified new associations linking cognition, emotions, physiological stress, and behavior in parents of adolescents. These results are especially important in light of the assumption that PRF has an important influence both on the self-regulatory abilities of parents (Schultheis et al., 2019) and on their parenting behaviors.


These findings advance our understanding of parental reflective functioning as influencing the parental ability to cope with stress in the context of parenting during the daily challenges that child rearing brings with itself, especially during the sensitive period of adolescence. Moreover, the results are also important from a clinical perspective, because they can help practitioners to better understand the needs of mothers and fathers, as well as the consequences that divorce might have on parents and their behaviors.

Alessandro Decarli
Centre Hospitalier Neuro-Psychiatrique

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Mothers’ and fathers’ reflective functioning and its association with parenting behaviors and cortisol reactivity during a conflict interaction with their adolescent children., Emotion, September 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/emo0001113.
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