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Understanding abusive parents

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Understanding abusive parents

Understanding 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


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 ...

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Keywords: abusive parents, understanding psychological abuse

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