Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Characteristics of Persons Who Maltreat Children


As noted above, it is difficult to isolate the factors that lead to abuse.  It is also hard to classify the personality characteristics of abusers.  Attempts to identify such characteristics have produced inconsistent and contradictory results, largely because many factors interact to produce the occurrence of child maltreatment (English, 1995).  Maladaptive parenting can arise in a variety of ways, especially when a parent's behavioral characteristics or personal history, such as excessive anger, anxiety, impulsivity, depression, background of abuse, or poor coping skills, are exacerbated by such stresses as marital conflict, social isolation, unemployment, substance abuse, the disability of a child, lack of community support systems, and other violence in the environment.  In general, several studies have found that abusive parents are more psychologically disturbed than non-abusive parents, though true psychosis is seen in only the most violent and abusive parents (English, 1995).  The relationships among all these factors are not well understood in determining the origins of child maltreatment.  It is important to be aware that what may be the cause of maltreatment in one family may not be the cause in another.  Thus, it is important to use a holistic model in analyzing child abuse, examining the interplay of many conditions and circumstances, including those affecting the parents, the family, and the community, that combine to produce an abusive or non-abusive situation.

We know from the most recent NCANDS data (1996) that 77 percent of perpetrators of child maltreatment are parents, and an additional 11 percent are relatives of the victim.  It is estimated that over 80 percent of all perpetrators are under age 40 and that almost two-thirds are female.  An estimated three-quarters of neglect and medical neglect cases are associated with female perpetrators, while almost three-quarters of sexual abuse cases are associated with males.

The most consistent finding in the child abuse literature is that maltreating parents often report having been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused or neglected as children.  Steele (1980) found that the presence of additional circumstances interacting with a prior history of abuse can increase the likelihood of abusive behavior, e.g., situational crisis, lack of social support, and a perception of the child as "unsatisfactory."  However, it is incorrect to draw the conclusion that maltreated children all grow up to become maltreating parents.  There are individuals who have not been abused as children who become abusive, as well as individuals who have been abused as children but do not subsequently abuse their own children.  Some researchers have identified protective factors that seem to break the cycle of abuse.  Parents with reported histories of abuse who do not abuse their own children are more likely to have (1) a better current social support system, including a supportive spouse; (2) a positive relationship with a significant adult in childhood or a positive experience with therapy as an adolescent or adult; (3) an ability to provide a clear account of their childhood abuse, with anger appropriately directed at the perpetrator, not at themselves (National Research Council, 1993).

Certain children are more physically and emotionally vulnerable than others to maltreatment.  The child's age and physical, mental, emotional, and social development can greatly increase or decrease the likelihood of maltreatment, depending on the interactions of these characteristics with parental factors previously discussed.  Younger children, due to their small size and development, are particularly vulnerable to certain forms of maltreatment.  In addition, the child's behavior, such as chronic crying or unresponsiveness, can increase the likelihood of maltreatment, particularly if the parents have impulsivity problems and cannot empathize with the child.  Children with disabilities are also at higher risk for abuse and neglect (National Research Council, 1993).