Date of Award

Summer 8-27-2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

PhD Counseling Psychology


Professional Psychology and Family Therapy


Minsun Lee, PhD

Committee Member

Pamela Foley, PhD

Committee Member

Inga Blom, PhD


Vulnerable Child Syndrome, attachment narratives, neonatal hospitalization


In the United States, approximately 400,000 infants annually are born prematurely, while a further 1% of full-term babies experience illnesses requiring neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admission. The NICU experience can be profoundly stressful, and for some families, the trauma lingers for years post-discharge, and are at risk for parental perception of child vulnerability (PPCV), wherein parents view physically healthy children as illness-prone despite lack of evident symptoms. This study explored the impact of early attachment narratives of NICU mothers meeting PPCV criteria on their post-NICU parent-child relationship narratives.

Although significant research exists on NICU outcomes, Vulnerable Child Syndrome, and the effects of parental mental health and attachment style on parent-child relationships, no prior study has investigated the interplay of NICU mothers’ early attachment experiences and their parent-child relationship narratives in the context of PPCV.

Two research questions guided this qualitative study: 1) How do the attachment narratives of NICU mothers who currently meet criteria for PPCV impact their narratives about their child and their relationship with their child? 2) What effect does the mother’s representation of herself as a mother have on her experience of PPCV and her relationship with her child?

The study identified three categories reflecting the mothers' experiences: a) healthy mentalizing in the context of intergenerational attachment trauma, b) healthy mentalizing in the context of intergenerational attachment security, and c) impairments in mentalizing. The narratives addressed how these mothers consciously and unconsciously made meaning of motherhood and their relationship with their children through their attachment and trauma histories. Limitations and implications for theory, practice, and future research were discussed.