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Understanding Abusive Parents

 

STUDY OF FAMILY INTERACTION LEAD TO NEW UNDERSTANDING OF ABUSIVE 
PARENTS

 Researchers at the University of Toronto have taken
 important steps toward producing a profile of an abusive parent.
 Prof. Gary Walters and doctoral student Lynn Oldershaw of the
 Department of Psychology have developed a system to characterize
 parents who physically abuse their children. This could
 ultimately allow social service professionals to identify
 parents in child abuse.

 Over the last five years, Walters and Oldershaw, in
 collaboration with Darlene Hall of the West End Creche, have
 examined over 100 mothers and their three to six-year-old
 children who have been physically abused. In the laboratory, the
 mother and child spend 30 minutes in structured activities such
 as playing, eating and cleaning-up. The family interaction is
 video-taped and later analyzed.

 The researchers have developed a system which allows them
 to record the effectiveness of parenting skills. They are
 particularly interested in disciplinary strategies because abuse
 most commonly occurs when the parent wants the child to comply.
 "It's a question of trying to determine which type of parent
 produces which type of child or which type of child elicits
 which type of parental behaviour," explains Oldershaw.

 As a result of their work, Walters and Oldershaw have
 identified distinct categories of abusive parents and their
 children. 'Harsh/intrusive' mothers are excessively harsh and
 constantly badger their child to behave. Despite the fact that
 these mothers humiliate and disapprove of their child, there are
 times when they hug, kiss or speak to them warmly. This type of
 mothering produces an aggressive, disobedient child.

 A 'covert/hostile' mother shows no positive feelings
 towards her child. She makes blatant attacks on the child's
 self-worth and denies him affection or attention. For his part,
 the child tries to engage his mother's attention and win her
 approval.

 An 'emotionally detached' mother has very little
 involvement with her child. She appears depressed and
 uninterested in the child's activities. The child of this type
 of mother displays no characteristics which set him apart from
 other children.

 In order to put together a parenting profile, the two
 researchers examine the mother/child interaction and their
 perception and feelings. For instance, Walters and Oldershaw
 take into account the mother's sense of herself as a parent and
 her impression of her child. The researchers also try to
 determine the child's perception of himself or herself and of
 the parent. Abusive parents are often believed to have
 inadequate parenting skills and are referred to programs to
 improve these skills. These programs are particularly
 appropriate for parents who, themselves, were raised by abusive
 parents and as a result are ignorant of any other behavior
 toward her child.

 One of the goals of the psychologists is to provide
 information to therapists which will help tailor therapy to the
 individual needs of the abusive parents. "Recidivism rates for
 abusive care-givers are high," says Walters. "To a large extent,
 abusive parents which require a variety of treatment. " Their
 research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities
 Research Council. 
 



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