Author ORCID Identifier


Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Clinical Psychology, PhD



Faculty Advisor

Lisa Coyne


Accommodation is a parenting behavior that is highly prevalent, has a strong association with child anxiety, and that persists despite its deleterious effects (e.g., Benito et al., 2015; Lebowitz et al., 2013; Thompson-Hollands, Kerns, Pincus, & Comer, 2014). While little is known about the psychological processes that motivate parents to engage in accommodating behaviors, conceptual models suggest that parental behavior may be influenced by avoidance of parental distress and cognitions around child anxiety (e.g., Feinberg, Kerns, Pincus, & Comer, 2018; Jones, Lebowitz, Marin, & Stark, 2015). However, most of the research in this domain is correlational, precluding knowledge regarding the possible influence or function that parents’ perceptions of their children’s anxiety may have on their parenting behavior. Relational frame theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001), a behavioral-analytic account of human language and cognition, allows for the experimental research of cognitive processes, as it conceptualizes cognitions as verbal behavior. The purpose of the present study was to explore derived relational responding in parents of anxious children and its potential role in avoidance based parenting behavior. Specifically, five parents of anxious children provided words describing their children’s anxiety (aversive stimuli), sources of joy (appetitive stimuli), descriptions of neutral objects (neutral stimuli) and positive parenting values (appetitive stimuli for a second experiment). This study used an alternating treatments single case experimental design across participants to explore latency and errors in derived relations across the three stimulus classes. I expected that mothers would: Hypothesis One: Form equivalence classes faster and with fewer errors between aversive child anxiety and novel stimuli relative to neutral novel or appetitive-novel stimuli, Hypothesis Two: take more time and make more errors in forming classes with aversive child anxiety stimuli and parenting values stimuli, compared to neutral-parenting values and appetitive-parenting values stimuli, Hypothesis Three: avoid visual stimuli previously associated with child anxiety stimuli, and Hypothesis Four: self-report elevated perception of child anxiety, parental avoidance, autonomy granting behavior and Hypothesis Five: self-report elevated cognitive fusion, experiential avoidance, and trait anxiety. Hypotheses were partially supported. Most mothers formed functional equivalence classes among novel symbols and aversive child anxiety words faster and with less errors than when forming relations between novel symbols and either neutral or appetitive words. Mothers did not show a systematic tendency to form equivalence classes with stimuli of incongruent psychological functions more slowly or with more errors than when forming classes between other stimuli. While participants 1 through 4 selected symbols systematically, only 1 and 3 avoided the symbols that had acquired aversive psychological functions on all trials. Results support the possibility that parents of anxious children may be less sensitive to other stimuli when stimuli about their children’s anxiety is present. Limitations of this study include not having a participant whose child did not struggle with anxiety, as well as some novel stimuli having psychological properties prior to the experimental tasks. Other implications are discussed.

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