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It is staggering to know that thousands of children are maltreated in ways that are detrimental to their developmental and psychological growth. Widespread concern about the issue was initially triggered in the 1960s to raise awareness of the plight of the ‘battered child’. Research has recognised numerous risk and protective factors commonly associated with child abuse. This essay will deal with the parental risk factors and will take into account the measures that afford protection against them.
Some forms of child maltreatment are related to parental competency due to age, temperament or a personal history with child abuse. However, a good deal of abuse and neglect is linked to sources of stress where marital conflicts, domestic violence, and the lack of a stable social network play significant causal roles. Having said that, no single factor can be definitive in determining risk and so they require simultaneous consideration. Despite the causes, family protective factors can reduce maltreatment rates by promoting positive parent-child relationships, encouraging extended family support and by building parental resilience.
When addressing the question of intervention, knowledge of the risk and protective factors implicated in child mistreatment can minimise risk. By recognising the complex interaction of factors that affect susceptibility to maltreatment, professionals can implement programmes specifically designed to protect children at risk. Therefore understanding the causes of maltreatment is crucial to preventing the problem.
Child maltreatment is a complex and pervasive problem that cuts across all sectors of society, where even defining the term ensues in an inherent complication. During the 1960s, the growing prevalence of abused children lead to the introduction of the term ‘battered child syndrome.’ This term, seen as a narrowly defined, was broadened so as not to simply infer to physical abuse. In 1997, the World Health Organisation drafted a definition of child maltreatment to encompass both emotional and physical injury but also negligent treatment.
Risk factors are characteristics where certain behaviours or conditions will likely play a contributory role in child mistreatment. Although some are not direct causes, circumstances in which these factors exist make a child highly vulnerable to experiencing maltreatment. However, there are also factors that offer a protective effect which mediate against risk and therefore can increase the well-being of children and families.
When determining risk in familial child maltreatment, it is necessary to examine the role of the parent as he is often the direct perpetrator. Temperament is significant when trying to understand why parents abuse their children. Influence of an individual’s psychological capacity on parental functioning can be found in investigations of mentally disturbed adults. Baldwin, Cole and Baldwin (1982) have revealed that families with a parent suffering from a psychotic disorder were less interactive and exhibited less warmth than families without. Mental illness can distort a parent’s judgement to a point where he is no longer competent to make decisions about a child’s needs.
Strong evidence implicating psychological factors in the etiology of child maltreatment derives from reports of intergeneration cycles of abuse (Spinetta and Rigler, 1972; Sherrod, et al., 1986). Parents who were victims of child mistreatment themselves gives rise to the common perception that being a victim is a determinant for turning into an abuser, yet there is a lack of substantial evidence. Undoubtedly, a history of abuse is a considerable risk factor alone but child maltreatment is determined by a complex interaction of rick and protective factors; factors which differentiate between repeaters and non-repeaters.
Notwithstanding, parents who were mistreated as children are less likely to become victimisers if they resolve internal conflicts related to that history of abuse. To further reduce risks, it is also important if parents have a supportive spouse and good social supports (Hunter and Kisltrom, 1979).
However, adults who were rejected as children become emotionally insulated from interpersonal relations and are unable to give affection or form a close bond with their children (Kempe and Kempe, 1978). This returns attention to the psychiatric make up of the individual abuser and shows how interrelated causal factors are.
Competent parenting can also be associated with psychological maturity; another determinant of maltreatment. Therefore, age serves as a indication of maturity and parental aptitude as young mothers may posses less desirable child-rearing attitudes than older mothers. Having said that, age also accounts for poor or inaccurate parenting skills as teen-parents will lack the fundamental understanding of a child’s needs. Having unrealistic expectations about a child’s progress may culminate in inappropriate punishments where conclusive studies presented by Straus (1992), and Flanagan et al., (1995), report that teenage mothers tend to exhibit higher rates of child abuse.
Protective factors aimed at minimising these risks should support parents with their child-rearing skills and teach sensitive parenting techniques. By providing parent education classes for new and especially for teen parents can inform them about normal child development and what to expect from their children at specific ages. Yet, this protective factor is not well-suited for all as some parents may be reluctant to attend parent-group meetings.
Social conditions create stresses that undermine family functioning where specific situations may exacerbate certain emotions of the family members affected. Hostility and frustration can resultantly aggravate the level of familial maltreatment.
Marital relationships serve as a principle support system for parents and so conflicts can elicit child maltreatment. Family dissolution can burden an individual and research indicates that children living with single-parents may be at a higher risk of experiencing abuse and neglect than children with two biological parents (Finkelhor, et al., 1997). The sole burden of family responsibilities linked together with fewer supports can contribute to the risk of single-parents mistreating their child.
Children in violent homes who witness intimate partner violence are subsequently at risk for being maltreated themselves. Appel and Holden (1998) have found that spousal abuse and child maltreatment co-exist in 30-60% of families. Even if children are not maltreated, they still experience harmful emotional consequences as witnessing violence teaches likewise behaviour or warrants it as appropriate and the child may resort to using violent action later in life. This draws attention back to the ‘victim to offender’ hypothesis.
In addition to a family system, interpersonal relations, between relatives and friends are essential when considering risks. Parents who are isolated with few social connections are at higher risk for maltreating their children. Hetherington, Cox and Cox (1977) have found that the support received from significant others exert a beneficial impact on parent-child relations. This data shows how a stable social network is positively linked with parents’ sense of competence in the care-giving role and evidently can lessen maltreatment rates. But its not merely about having several social connections but the quality of them as-well.
It is interesting however that in these cases of support, the mediating role of the parent’s psychological well-being is pivotal. Marital relations do not influence parenting directly but instead promote positive attitudes in an individual and thereby influence parenting capabilities (Gamble and Belsky, 1984). Similarly, social relations may serve to enhance the psychological functioning of the parent. Sources of stress and support thus strongly affect parental competence, as although unfavourable relations contribute to the etiology of abuse, the quality of the relationship is influenced by personality; correspondingly, they produce bi-directional affects.
Parental substance abuse, is also predictive of child maltreatment when daily stresses of raising children prove challenging especially when accompanied with multiple life stressors such as an history of abuse or marital conflicts. Substance misuse interferes with mental functioning and subsequently make parents less available to children, as Forrester (2000) confirms that substance abuse is strongly related to neglect. It may also explain some of the attachment difficulties that can occur, since healthy development requires parental responsiveness to the needs of a child. Being intoxicated can again negatively influence parental discipline choices and lead to violent tendencies towards a child. Simultaneously, these risk factors can affect a parent’s capacity to cope effectively but by reaching out to a support system can help build resilience against stressful circumstances.
The interactive play of risk and protective factors provoke familial child maltreatment but it can be prevented regardless. Early identification of causes and outlining the compensatory factors can lead to effective interventions to protect the child involved. Helfer and Kempe (1976) have argued that preventing child abuse entails predicting its occurrence. Therefore, it is clear that professionals need awareness of the several factors that create contexts for maltreatment so that intervention programmes employ a multi-sectoral approach.
By acknowledging the factors, intervention strategies can be implemented to minimise the underlying risks; encourage reaching out to family and friends, but also to strengthen the protective factors; advanced prenatal care and home-visitor networks (Halperin, 1979; Parke & Collmer, 1975). Moreover, when enforcing intervention strategies, the treatment of parents should be coordinated to that of children as the potentials for change in parent-child relationships and parental attitudes is maximised (Olds, 1983).
However, risk factors have limitations in predicting specific instances of abuse as the determinants in one family may not necessarily result in child maltreatment in another. Furthermore, an individual may not have the emotional resources to cope adequately with the demands of parenting and so intervention must be able to address these implications. Additionally, extensive evaluations need to be conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of short and long-term intervention programmes.
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