Restricted (Penn State Only)
Mac Neill, Leigha Alexandra
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 12, 2019
Committee Members:
  • Koraly Elisa Perez-Edgar, Dissertation Advisor
  • Koraly Elisa Perez-Edgar, Committee Chair
  • Erika Sell Lunkenheimer, Committee Member
  • Pamela Marie Cole, Committee Member
  • Susan Marie Mc Hale, Outside Member
  • Attention
  • Temperament
  • Parenting
  • Eye-Tracking
  • EEG
  • Individual Differences
  • Development
Attention is a critical cognitive process that shapes children's social behaviors and competence across development. Patterns of attention in-task can offer a rich source of information about the child’s perceptions, cognitions, and feelings in real time. Attention mechanisms operate as “gatekeepers”, filtering information from the environment and constructing how the child engages with others. Patterns of attention have also been related to anxious behavior in childhood. Child temperament (i.e., biologically-rooted individual differences in emotional reactivity and regulation) may influence the effect of attention on anxiety, such that children with fearful temperaments are more likely to show attention patterns that support anxious behaviors. Experiences in the family also contribute to how children attend to emotions, as the family is an important learning context for many social and emotional behaviors. According to the experience-dependent affective learning model, children are biologically prepared to experience emotions and are sensitive to emotional signals. When children experience consistent aversive emotion cues from their parents, they can show deficits in affective learning, such as biased attention to threat. Developmental researchers have laid the groundwork for studying the relations between attention and temperament, attention and parenting, and temperament and parenting. A critical next step is to examine how temperament, attention, and parenting contexts overlap in normative development. The current dissertation addressed and expanded on outstanding gaps in this literature by implementing: 1) a developmental framework with, 2) a consideration for normative familial processes in the development of attention, as it employed 3) a multi-method assessment of attention. Specifically, the studies drew upon electroencephalography (i.e., measurement of electrical activity in the brain) and mobile eye-tracking. Together, these studies aimed to elucidate how individual children differed in attention to specific emotions and behaviors as they developed within their unique families, as well as how these processes interacted to place children at risk for anxiety. Specifically, the findings from this dissertation suggest: 1) individual differences in attention are evident as a function of temperament and family climate, 2) the associations among temperament, maternal authoritarian parenting, and internalizing problems depend on different neural attention processes, 3) measuring attention and parenting simultaneously across a parent-child interaction can help explain patterns of dynamic, dyadic functioning in the context of anxiety vulnerability. This dissertation is interdisciplinary, in that it merges multiple methods from neuroscience and family systems to examine fundamental mechanisms of children’s attention that place them at risk for anxiety. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychiatric disorders affecting children, and research suggests that attention processes are a critical component to their development and maintenance. Understanding the development of these attention patterns in the contexts in which children grow up can potentially inform interventions that support parents’ use of positive socialization strategies that are child-specific in nature.