STUDY OF FAMILY INTERACTION LEAD TO NEW UNDERSTANDING OF ABUSIVEPARENTS Researchers at the University of Toronto have takenimportant steps toward producing a profile of an abusive parent.Prof.
Gary Walters and doctoral student Lynn Oldershaw of theDepartment of Psychology have developed a system to characterizeparents who physically abuse their children.Thiscouldultimately allow social service professionalstoidentifyparents in child abuse.Over the last five years,Walters and Oldershaw,incollaboration with Darlene Hall of the West End Creche,haveexamined over 100 mothers and their three to six-year-oldchildren who have been physically abused. In the laboratory, themother and child spend 30 minutes in structured activities suchas playing, eating and cleaning-up.
The family interaction isvideo-taped and later analyzed.The researchers have developed a system which allows themto record the effectiveness of parenting skills.They areparticularly interested in disciplinary strategies because abusemost commonly occurs when the parent wants the child to comply.”It’s a question of trying to determine which type of parentproduces which type of child or which type of child elicitswhich type of parental behaviour,” explains Oldershaw.
As a result of their work,Walters and Oldershaw haveidentified distinct categories of abusive parents and theirchildren. ‘Harsh/intrusive’ mothers are excessively harsh andconstantly badger their child to behave. Despite the fact thatthese mothers humiliate and disapprove of their child, there aretimes when they hug, kiss or speak to them warmly. This type ofmothering produces an aggressive, disobedient child.
A ‘covert/hostile’ mother shows no positive feelingstowards her child. She makes blatant attacks on the child’sself-worth and denies him affection or attention. For his part,the child tries to engage his mother’s attention and win herapproval. An ’emotionally detached’motherhasverylittleinvolvement with her child.
Sheappearsdepressedanduninterested in the child’s activities. The child of this typeof mother displays no characteristics which set him apart fromother children.In order to put together a parenting profile,the tworesearchers examine the mother/child interaction andtheirperception and feelings. For instance,Walters and Oldershawtake into account the mother’s sense of herself as a parent andher impression of her child.
The researchers also try todetermine the child’s perception of himself or herself and ofthe parent.Abusive parents are often believedtohaveinadequate parenting skills and are referred to programs toimprove theseskills.Theseprogramsareparticularlyappropriate for parents who, themselves, were raised by abusiveparents and as a result are ignorant of any other behaviortoward her child.One of the goals of the psychologists is to provideinformation to therapists which will help tailor therapy to theindividual needs of the abusive parents.
“Recidivism rates forabusive care-givers are high,” says Walters. “To a large extent,abusive parents which require a variety of treatment. ” Theirresearch is funded by the Social Sciences andHumanitiesResearch Council. Contact:Gary Walters (416)978-7814Lynn Oldershaw (416)978-3528