Background: Although it is the clinical impression that alexithymia may be due to disturbances in the early parent-child relationship and that it is associated with primitive defense mechanisms, a possible association with neurotic defense mechanisms, such as repression and reaction formation, has also been mentioned. However, empirical studies on these and related issues are scarce. The aim of this study was to determine the association between perceived parental attitude, defense mechanisms and alexithymia. Methods: In a cross-sectional study we obtained data from 78 psychiatric outpatients. Alexithymia, defense mechanisms and perceived parental attitude were measured with the Toronto Alexithymia Scale, the Defense Style Questionnaire and the Parental Bonding Instrument. Results: We found only weak associations between perceived parental attitude and alexithymic features. Primitive and adaptive defenses were associated with alexithymic features in a clinically sensible way. The strongest association was found between primitive defense mechanisms and alexithymic features. There was hardly any association between neurotic defense mechanisms and alexithymic features. Conclusions: The results of our study support the hypothesis that alexithymia is associated with a primitive defense style, whereas a relation to disturbances in early parent-child relationship could not be confirmed. It is argued that possibly more severe traumatic experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, than merely a negatively perceived parental attitude, are necessary to develop alexithymic features.
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