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
(416)978-3528

Category: Psychology