Lea Halsey

Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Milner, Joel S.

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

Department of Psychology


Mother and child--Psychological aspects; Parenting--Psychological aspects; Child Abuse Potential Inventory; Empathy


The present study examined affective and empathic responsiveness in mothers at high and low risk for physical child abuse [as determined by their scores on the Child Abuse Potential (CAP) Inventory] during a baseline period and following exposure to smiling, quiet, and crying infant tapes. The study was based, in part, on a model of empathy (the negative state relief model) which suggests that empathic emotion is facilitated by experiencing increases in temporary sadness or sorrow. It was expected that high-risk (High-CAP) and low-risk (Low- CAP) mothers would differ on empathic responsiveness, with the greatest difference observed following the crying infant tape. In addition, High-CAP mothers, compared to Low-CAP mothers, were expected to show more overall sadness, hostility, distress, and less happiness across the infant stimuli. Twenty subjects, ten High-CAP and ten Low-CAP mothers, were drawn from social service agencies and were matched exactly on race and marital status. The Hi-CAP and Low-CAP mothers were also similar (jo’s > .05) in age, education, and number of children. Subjects viewed three two-minute infant tapes of a smiling, followed by a quiet, and then a crying infant. Mothers were given a mood measure (including a situational empathy measure) during the baseline period and following each infant tape presentation. Following the last administration of the mood measure, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (a dispositional empathy measure) and the CAP Inventory were administered. Overall, the study replicated results regarding emotional lability obtained in studies of abusive parents, extending these results to an at-risk sample. High-risk mothers, in comparison to low-risk mothers, reported more negative affect (sadness, distress, and hostility) after viewing both the quiet and the crying infant. The high-risk mothers affective responsiveness suggested a possible "mirroring" of the infant’s affect, which was not observed in the low-risk mothers. Expected differences in empathic responsiveness between high- and low-risk mothers were not realized. However, post hoc analyses revealed within-groups differences in situational empathy. These results lend further support to findings from previous studies that parental situational empathy and affective responsiveness may continue to be important constructs in the study of abusive parenting.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [68]-73)


148 pages




Northern Illinois University

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