Object Relations and Referential Activity in Physically Abused Adolescents

Article excerpt


This study compared the object relations and language functions of 15 physically abused and 15 nonabused adolescents. The adolescents provided a 5-minute narrative about their mothers, which was scored for referential activity and object relations. As predicted, the abused adolescents tended to have lower levels of affect tone, indicating more malevolent relationship paradigms. Contrary to what was predicted, however, there were no significant differences between groups on overall measures of referential activity and object relations. Further, the abused adolescents tended to have higher levels of two elements of referential activity (concreteness, imagery), indicating increased verbal ability to express emotional experience. While predicted correlations were found between object relations and referential activity for the nonabused group, the abused group showed higher symbolizing and verbalizing capacity, associated with more malevolent representations of relationships. The findings do not support the view t hat physically abused adolescents experience developmental lags, instead suggesting that they organize and use emotional and symbolizing processes differently from nonabused adolescents. The implications for treatment are discussed.

The representational processes underlying interpersonal functioning have been explored both in the psychoanalytic object relations literature and in social cognitive research. According to Westen (1985), object relations approaches have examined, from a clinical perspective, the nature and development of representations of self and others and the affective processes brought to bear on those representations, with a focus on pathological object relations in personality disorders. Research into social cognition has explored mechanisms of social information processing from an experimental perspective, with a focus on normal, modal processes. The Social Cognition and Object Relations Scale (SCORS) represents an effort to incorporate both perspectives.

Applying SOORS to Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) data, Westen et al. (1990) compared cognitive and affective structures of adolescents with borderline personality disorder, psychiatric patients, and normal subjects. They found that adolescent borderlines demonstrated significantly lower affect tone (i. e., more malevolent relationship paradigms) and lower capacity for emotional investment in relationships and moral standards than did psychiatric and normal subjects.

Bucci (1995) has argued that specific traumas or a general failure of caretaking may leave an infant, child, adolescent, or adult with internal structures of rage, fear of abandonment, or fear of annihilation, which affect the way he or she thinks about and experiences self others, and the world. Dissociation in these internal structures may block the links between nonverbal emotional structures and words (Bucci, 1992). Bucci's Referential Activity (RA) measure was designed to assess the degree to which an individual is able to symbolize nonverbal experience (particularly emotional); that is, express it in words. In a metanalysis, samstag (1996) found a strong relationship between RA and a wide range of measures of cognitive, linguistic, and affective integration that are understood as gauging mental health. Connelly (1994) found significant positive correlations between overall scores on RA and SCORS when applied to the Early Memories and TAT narratives of 60 nonabused college students.

The present study examined the object relations and symbolizing capacities of physically abused adolescents. In particular, it explored the intrapsychic sequelae of physical abuse rather than the external behaviors reported either by others or by the victims themselves. Several questions were investigated: whether abused and nonabused adolescents have different levels of emotional and interpersonal development; whether they use language to express emotional experience in different ways; and whether specific linguistic qualities and uses of language correlate with particular types of object relations. …


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