Child Abuse

VII. Explanations for Child Abuse

There are many factors that are associated with child abuse. Some of the more common/well-accepted explanations are individual pathology, parent–child interaction, past abuse in the family (or social learning), situational factors, and cultural support for physical punishment along with a lack of cultural support for helping parents here in the United States.

The first explanation centers on the individual pathology of a parent or caretaker who is abusive. This theory focuses on the idea that people who abuse their children have something wrong with their individual personality or biological makeup. Such psychological pathologies may include having anger control problems; being depressed or having post-partum depression; having a low tolerance for frustration (e.g., children can be extremely frustrating: they don’t always listen; they constantly push the line of how far they can go; and once the line has been established, they are constantly treading on it to make sure it hasn’t moved. They are dependent and self-centered, so caretakers have very little privacy or time to themselves); being rigid (e.g., having no tolerance for differences—for example, what if your son wanted to play with dolls? A rigid father would not let him, laugh at him for wanting to, punish him when he does, etc.); having deficits in empathy (parents who cannot put themselves in the shoes of their children cannot fully understand what their children need emotionally); or being disorganized, inefficient, and ineffectual. (Parents who are unable to manage their own lives are unlikely to be successful at managing the lives of their children, and since many children want and need limits, these parents are unable to set them or adhere to them.)

Biological pathologies that may increase the likelihood of someone becoming a child abuser include having substance abuse or dependence problems, or having persistent or reoccurring physical health problems (especially health problems that can be extremely painful and can cause a person to become more self-absorbed, both qualities that can give rise to a lack of patience, lower frustration tolerance, and increased stress).

The second explanation for child abuse centers on the interaction between the parent and the child, noting that certain types of parents are more likely to abuse, and certain types of children are more likely to be abused, and when these less-skilled parents are coupled with these more difficult children, child abuse is the most likely to occur. Discussion here focuses on what makes a parent less skilled, and what makes a child more difficult. Characteristics of unskilled parents are likely to include such traits as only pointing out what children do wrong and never giving any encouragement for good behavior, and failing to be sensitive to the emotional needs of children. Less skilled parents tend to have unrealistic expectations of children. They may engage in role reversal— where the parents make the child take care of them—and view the parent’s happiness and well-being as the responsibility of the child. Some parents view the parental role as extremely stressful and experience little enjoyment from being a parent. Finally, less-skilled parents tend to have more negative perceptions regarding their child(ren). For example, perhaps the child has a different shade of skin than they expected and this may disappoint or anger them, they may feel the child is being manipulative (long before children have this capability), or they may view the child as the scapegoat for all the parents’ or family’s problems. Theoretically, parents with these characteristics would be more likely to abuse their children, but if they are coupled with having a difficult child, they would be especially likely to be abusive. So, what makes a child more difficult? Certainly, through no fault of their own, children may have characteristics that are associated with child care that is more demanding and difficult than in the “normal” or “average” situation. Such characteristics can include having physical and mental disabilities (autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], hyperactivity, etc.); the child may be colicky, frequently sick, be particularly needy, or cry more often. In addition, some babies are simply unhappier than other babies for reasons that cannot be known. Further, infants are difficult even in the best of circumstances. They are unable to communicate effectively, and they are completely dependent on their caretakers for everything, including eating, diaper changing, moving around, entertainment, and emotional bonding. Again, these types of children, being more difficult, are more likely to be victims of child abuse.

Nonetheless, each of these types of parents and children alone cannot explain the abuse of children, but it is the interaction between them that becomes the key. Unskilled parents may produce children that are happy and not as needy, and even though they are unskilled, they do not abuse because the child takes less effort. At the same time, children who are more difficult may have parents who are skilled and are able to handle and manage the extra effort these children take with aplomb. However, risks for child abuse increase when unskilled parents must contend with difficult children.

Social learning or past abuse in the family is a third common explanation for child abuse. Here, the theory concentrates not only on what children learn when they see or experience violence in their homes, but additionally on what they do not learn as a result of these experiences. Social learning theory in the context of family violence stresses that if children are abused or see abuse (toward siblings or a parent), those interactions and violent family members become the representations and role models for their future familial interactions. In this way, what children learn is just as important as what they do not learn. Children who witness or experience violence may learn that this is the way parents deal with children, or that violence is an acceptable method of child rearing and discipline. They may think when they become parents that “violence worked on me when I was a child, and I turned out fine.” They may learn unhealthy relationship interaction patterns; children may witness the negative interactions of parents and they may learn the maladaptive or violent methods of expressing anger, reacting to stress, or coping with conflict.

What is equally as important, though, is that they are unlikely to learn more acceptable and nonviolent ways of rearing children, interacting with family members, and working out conflict. Here it may happen that an adult who was abused as a child would like to be nonviolent toward his or her own children, but when the chips are down and the child is misbehaving, this abused-child-turned-adult does not have a repertoire of nonviolent strategies to try. This parent is more likely to fall back on what he or she knows as methods of discipline.

Something important to note here is that not all abused children grow up to become abusive adults. Children who break the cycle were often able to establish and maintain one healthy emotional relationship with someone during their childhoods (or period of young adulthood). For instance, they may have received emotional support from a nonabusing parent, or they received social support and had a positive relationship with another adult during their childhood (e.g., teacher, coach, minister, neighbor, etc.). Abused children who participate in therapy during some period of their lives can often break the cycle of violence. In addition, adults who were abused but are able to form an emotionally supportive and satisfying relationship with a mate can make the transition to being nonviolent in their family interactions.

Moving on to a fourth familiar explanation for child abuse, there are some common situational factors that influence families and parents and increase the risks for child abuse. Typically, these are factors that increase family stress or social isolation. Specifically, such factors may include receiving public assistance or having low socioeconomic status (a combination of low income and low education). Other factors include having family members who are unemployed, underemployed (working in a job that requires lower qualifications than an individual possesses), or employed only part time. These financial difficulties cause great stress for families in meeting the needs of the individual members. Other stress-inducing familial characteristics are single-parent households and larger family size. Finally, social isolation can be devastating for families and family members. Having friends to talk to, who can be relied upon, and with whom kids can be dropped off occasionally is tremendously important for personal growth and satisfaction in life. In addition, social isolation and stress can cause individuals to be quick to lose their tempers, as well as cause people to be less rational in their decision making and to make mountains out of mole hills. These situations can lead families to be at greater risk for child abuse.

Finally, cultural views and supports (or lack thereof) can lead to greater amounts of child abuse in a society such as the United States. One such cultural view is that of societal support for physical punishment. This is problematic because there are similarities between the way criminals are dealt with and the way errant children are handled. The use of capital punishment is advocated for seriously violent criminals, and people are quick to use such idioms as “spare the rod and spoil the child” when it comes to the discipline or punishment of children. In fact, it was not until quite recently that parenting books began to encourage parents to use other strategies than spanking or other forms of corporal punishment in the discipline of their children. Only recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out and recommended that parents do not spank or use other forms of violence on their children because of the deleterious effects such methods have on youngsters and their bonds with their parents. Nevertheless, regardless of recommendations, the culture of corporal punishment persists.

Another cultural view in the United States that can give rise to greater incidents of child abuse is the belief that after getting married, couples of course should want and have children. Culturally, Americans consider that children are a blessing, raising kids is the most wonderful thing a person can do, and everyone should have children. Along with this notion is the idea that motherhood is always wonderful; it is the most fulfilling thing a woman can do; and the bond between a mother and her child is strong, glorious, and automatic—all women love being mothers. Thus, culturally (and theoretically), society nearly insists that married couples have children and that they will love having children. But, after children are born, there is not much support for couples who have trouble adjusting to parenthood, or who do not absolutely love their new roles as parents. People look askance at parents who need help, and cannot believe parents who say anything negative about parenthood. As such, theoretically, society has set up a situation where couples are strongly encouraged to have kids, are told they will love kids, but then society turns a blind or disdainful eye when these same parents need emotional, financial, or other forms of help or support. It is these types of cultural viewpoints that increase the risks for child abuse in society.

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