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Dysfunctional Families

What do we know about parents from maltreating families?

  • They are often socially isolated, and have little emotional and financial support. Depression is a common factor in the neglect of children; Chaffin and colleagues found in a study of over 7,000 parents in five major cities that depressed parents are 3 times more likely to neglect their children.
  • They sometimes were abused or neglected themselves as children. Jaffe says that 30% of abusive parents were themselves abused as children. Mothers who were abused as children often lack a positive mental picture of good mothering, and Bower found that if they have difficulty recognizing the abusive nature of their own experiences, they are prone to use the same abusive techniques with their own children.
  • They often show limited insight into the complexity of the child’s emotional and psychological needs and development, and have a limited understanding of the parent-child relationship. Schakel says a good understanding of the child’s developmental needs is the best predictor of healthy mother-child interactions. Without this, parents are at high risk to become overwhelmed and frustrated, and engage in abusive discipline and parenting. Ammerman notes that parents who do not understand these issues often attribute their child’s misbehavior to willfulness on the child’s part, a conscious intention to cause the parent aggravation and frustration. Schakel and Chaffin both found that this is especially problematic when parents are younger, come from larger families, and are poor.
  • While research has failed to document a consistent pattern of individual pathology in abusive or neglectful parents, Chaffin and colleagues found that people with Antisocial Personality Disorder, for example, were six times more likely to neglect their children than the average individual.

What do we know about maltreating families?

  • They often experience high levels of stress and discord in their lives, often as a result of the chaotic and unhealthy environments in which they live. For example, Bell and Jenkins, in a study of children on the South Side of Chicago, found that 47% of grade school children and 49% of high school teens had seen someone shot or stabbed. In 50% of the cases, the victim was known to the child or teen. Further, 47% of teens reported having been victimized themselves; 40% had been threatened with a gun or knife.
  • The parents may have substance abuse problems and show high levels of marital discord and violence. Ross found in a study of over 3300 parents that almost 25% of parents who were violent toward their partner were also violent toward their children. Substance abuse generally exacerbates violence, and violence is more likely to occur after a partner has been using substances. As a result, the children experience high levels of anxiety and become “emotionally overloaded.” the children often feel responsible for the abuse, and experience intense feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. They may intervene to stop it and protect their mother, thus placing themselves at risk for harm. They also learn to be wary about the environment and their safety; they become very vigilant and watch mother carefully for indications of how to behave and prevent father’s outbursts.
  • Both substance abuse and violence interfere with parental care for the children. They children receive inconsistent structure, support, and affection for extended and unpredictable periods of time. “Interrupted parenting” or a “wavering commitment” to parenting is most harmful.
  • Children attempt to control their impulses and limit their needs, placing limited demands upon the family and decreasing the risk for a violent outburst. Such children learn ways to continue this, and are at risk for depression, or become overwhelmed and anxious, and are at high risk for hyperactivity and aggressiveness. Both types of children show low self-esteem, and limited social-problem-solving skills. Both are further prone to school problems leading to special placement in LD, BD, or MR classes, and lower scores on intelligence tests.
  • Sometimes children show extreme difficulty bonding with the parent and feeling safe with them. Bowlby discusses this as a defense against the pain of repeated separations. At the other extreme, children may show extreme dependency upon their parents and place high demands for attention, affection, and support upon them.

What do we know about the dynamics between maltreating parents and their children?

  • While there may be no overt negative interactions, there are generally limited positive interactions between the parent and child. However, when negative interactions are present, they are powerful predictors of abuse. The parent takes away control of a task from the child, and is more critical of the child’s behavior.
  • Parents use power assertive control strategies (e.g., threats, demands, disapproval), and fail to respond positively to the child’s good behavior. Parents respond to the child’s increasing disobedience with more negative, controlling, and punitive behaviors, and the child’s behavior becomes worse.
  • The parent is likely to show hostility, be demanding and rigid, and respond critically to the child. They have inconsistent expectations of the child, show poor conflict resolution skills, and send mixed messages to children. The may be prone to either emotional overinvolvement or affective inhibition. The children are likely to withdraw from the parent, show more aggressive behavior and disobedience, and initiate little positive peer and child-adult contact.

What’s a better way to interact?

  • Parents in non-maltreating families show more positive interactions between the parent and child, and mothers use more positive discipline approaches (e.g., reasoning, cooperation, approval). They have a warm and close relationship with the child as well as their partner, and help the child to gain a sense of mastery and competency in some area.
  • They take advantage of positive behaviors by reinforcing and praising them; they have fewer aversive interactions with child, and are able to quickly end them. They provide structure for the child, give clear and simple instructions, and appear relaxed. They are able to soothe the child’s distress and distract them at times from potential conflicts by refocusing their attention on other activities.
  • They teach skills to gain social support and make friends, helping the child learn ways to resolve conflicts, reach compromises and find common play activities, and empathize with distressed peers and siblings.
  • The parent is likely to be non-defensive and self-aware, and have good self-esteem. They are flexible, show good judgment and common sense, and good self-control.