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Abusive parents

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. Contact: Gary

Walters (416)978-7814 Lynn Oldershaw


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