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Underezding 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.Thiscould
ultimately allow social service professionalstoidentify
parents in child abuse.

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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
coneztly 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

An ’emotionally detached’motherhasverylittle
involvement with her child.Sheappearsdepressedand
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 andtheir
perception and feelings. For inezce,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 believedtohave
inadequate parenting skills and are referred to programs to
improve theseskills.Theseprogramsareparticularly
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 andHumanities
Research Council.


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