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Psychology Student Examines Legacy of Trauma

Taylor Thomas

University of Notre Dame senior Taylor Thomas says she chose to major in psychology because it can help bring order to things that seem incomprehensible.

“I’m interested in the ways we can explain systematically the very chaotic aspects of life.”

In pursuing this interest, Thomas spent last summer studying how mothers who have experienced trauma engage their children in conversation. She developed the research project under the guidance of Kristin Valentino, who works with at-risk and maltreated populations as The William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Assistant Professor of Psychology.

Thomas’ ongoing research involves analyzing and coding previously recorded conversations with mothers and children from untroubled backgrounds and from families in which the mother had experienced sexual abuse or interpersonal trauma.

“I’m looking for both the presence and absence of specific things like how many ‘what is’ questions a mother asks or how many ‘yes/no’ questions,” she says.

The results so far, says Thomas, are clear.

Challenging Research

“Moms who have experienced some sort of trauma and who were avoidant of their feelings,” Thomas reports, “were less able to reminisce and to engage the child in the conversation.”

Existing research shows that mother-child interactions, specifically mother-child elaborative reminiscing, “are pivotal in child cognitive and socio-emotional developmental outcomes,” she says.

Thomas is currently completing a senior thesis that builds on the research she was able to do last summer through a grant from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts’ Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).

“My thesis explores the association between maternal trauma history and mother-child elaborative reminiscing in order to identify maternal characteristics that impede mother-child dialogues,” she says. “This research is important in informing elaborative reminiscing as an intervention and prevention technique.”

Thomas is enthusiastic about the project, despite the challenge doing independent research poses. “Research takes a lot of trying and trying and then not seeing what you want to see at first,” she says. “You have to be patient with yourself.”

The patience pays off, however, when the analysis finally reveals a trend or development. “The most rewarding part was seeing it all come together,” she says. “Coming out with an actual product is really exciting.”

Advanced Studies

Thomas says her summer UROP research and the experience of working on her senior thesis this academic year has helped set her course for her future.

“UROP made it possible for me to dedicate so much time to this project,” Thomas says, “and this project has really confirmed that psychology and research are things I love. It’s definitely impacted my track and opened a lot of other doors.”

This spring, in fact, Thomas has been invited to share her research at two psychology conferences. “I’ll be presenting in Chicago and Seattle,” she says. “It will be a good experience and will help with my applications to graduate schools.”

In the meantime, Thomas continues to finalize her thesis while working as a research assistant in Valentino’s Development and Psychopathology Lab in the Center for Children and Families. “I plan on getting my Ph.D. in psychology, so it’s been a great experience,” Thomas says.

“I’m really thankful to all the people who contribute to UROP and make this all possible for me.”

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