Understanding Parenting as a Process: Frontal EEG Alpha Asymmetry as a Measure of "Online" Maternal Responsiveness to Infant Cues

Open Access
Killeen, Lauren A.
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 20, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Douglas Michael Teti, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Douglas Michael Teti, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Pamela Marie Cole, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • William Ray, Committee Member
  • Ginger A Moore, Committee Member
  • Paul Richard Amato, Committee Member
  • emotions
  • brain
  • prefrontal cortex
  • parenting
  • emotional availability
  • risk
  • depression
  • anxiety
Parenting is widely regarded as a major contributor to child mental health, yet little is known about the processes that underlie parenting behaviors. The use of high-density EEG may allow unique insight into the complexity of mothers’ in-the-moment responses to their infants and emotional/motivational processes that can undermine competent parenting. The present study examined the links between frontal EEG alpha asymmetry as a trait measure (baseline condition), state measure (experimental conditions), and an index of ones capacity for emotional responding (shift in asymmetry from a baseline to an experimental condition) and maternal responsiveness. During continuous a EEG recording, mothers viewed videos of their own infants expressing joy, anger/distress, and neutral interest. Maternal responsiveness was conceptualized as self-reported experienced emotions in response to infant emotion displays, self-reported anxious and depressive symptoms, and observed emotional availability during mother-infant free-play interaction. Greater relative right frontal activity at baseline was associated with greater reported anxiety, but was unrelated to maternal responsiveness. Limited relations emerged between frontal EEG alpha asymmetry during the experimental conditions (infant emotion videos) and maternal responsiveness. However, a shift toward greater relative right frontal activation was associated with maternal experience of sadness, concern, irritability, and a lack of joy in response to seeing ones own infant in distress, along with lower anxiety and adaptive parenting behaviors. These findings are suggestive of an empathetic maternal response. The shift in frontal EEG alpha asymmetry was driven by a decrease in left frontal activation from a baseline condition to the onset of the infant emotion videos. Implications of the study findings for conceptualizing parenting risk are discussed.