Childhood Aggression and Child Abuse: Need for Integrating the Two Findings – IV

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Parallel research in the areas of child abuse and aggression is taking place, but findings from the two areas have not been integrated well. Child abuse studies and child aggression studies may be describing the same children, or there may be considerable overlap, which suggests that research groups must be much more carefully described than has been true in the past, explains Prof. Ashoka, in the fourth and final part of the erudite research paper, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.  

Subsequent work on Family Therapy Research Project, particularly by Glaser (1989), has explored the similarities between abusive families and distressed families (clinic-referred families with oppositional-defiant- or conduct-disordered children, but without abuse). Parallel research in the areas of child abuse and childhood aggression is taking place, but findings from the two areas have not been integrated well. Child abuse studies and child aggression studies may be describing the same children, or there may be considerable overlap, which suggests that research groups must be much more carefully described than has been true in the past.  

At present, social learning theory in the area of child abuse may be described as a social interactional model of child abuse. The social interactional model has evolved from a long tradition of person- psychology (Cairns, 1979a, 1979c; Ekehammar, 1974). In order to illustrate the social interactional model, Wolfe (1985) compared it with the psychiatric model. He noted that the psychiatric model has conceptualised child abuse as a distinct personality syndrome or disorder in which parental psychopathology is viewed as being responsible for child abuse (Melnick & Hurley, 1969; Oates, 1979; Sloane & Meier, 1983). Psychiatric model studies comparing abusive with non-abusive parents have focused on measuring psychological problems such as self-esteem, depression, and impulse control. Early childhood experiences, coping and defense mechanisms, personality profiles, and similar characteristics have also been examined within the context of the psychiatric model (Wolfe, 1985). On the other hand, the social interactional model emphasizes the bidirectional influences of behaviour among family members, antecedent events that may precipitate abuse, and that may maintain the use of excessive punishment with the child (Burgess, 1978; Burgess & Richardson, 1984). Of major interest to social interactional researchers is the current behaviour of the abusive or distressed parent in the context of the family and the community. Also of interest are the parents’ learning history, interpersonal experience, and intrinsic capabilities. 

Within the social interactional model, research has focused on the microanalysis of interactions among family members with the expectation that abusive parents would display rates and patterns of abusive behaviour distinguishing them from non-abusive parents. In the area of childhood aggression, the target child and other members of the family are viewed as active participants in an escalating cycle of coercion (Patterson, 1982; Reid, Tapline, & Lorber, 1981). Whether or not parents become abusive is seen as a function of their aggregate (a) childbearing and interpersonal skills and (b) the frequency and intensity of aversive stimulation impinging on family members from the outside or within the family unit (Burgess, 1978). These correlates of abuse do not cause abuse. It is hypothesized that child-aversive behaviour and a stress-filled environment interact with parental experience and competence to give rise to the mediating variable(s) of conditioned arousal and/or negative attributions that in turn lead to aggressive retaliation (Knutson, 1978; Vasta, 1982). Social interactional researchers have focused on abusive parents’ emotional and cognitive reactions to aversive child stimuli and the interactional patterns of abusive families (Wolfe, 1985).  

Wolfe (1985) reported that abusive parents were significantly more punitive and harsh toward their children than non-abusive parents in childrearing situations. He noted that data concerning aversive parent-child interactions have been alternately interpreted: Proponents of the psychiatric model interpret aversive interactions as indicative of pronounced impulse disorder or characterological defect on the part of the abusive parents. On the other hand, social interaction theorists argue that abusive parents fail to use contingencies that would reduce child behaviour problems. They also fail to use positive approaches to teach their children desirable behaviours. The result is a cycle of aversive behaviour that may culminate in harm to the child (Kelly, 1983; Wolfe, Kaufman, Aragona, & Sandler, 1981).  

The psychiatric and the social interaction models are not mutually exclusive viewpoints. Both attempt to understand individual characteristics of abusive parents in relation to prior experience and current demands. The major distinction lies in the focus on the parent as the principal cause of the abuse. How the role of the parent is conceptualized affects the types of questions asked by researchers and the selection of by therapists.  

The social interactional model assumes that parents who abuse their children display behaviours belonging to the same general response class as aggression. Wolfe (1985) noted that a key factor in explaining interpersonal violence is the transition from anger to aggression. He provided a parallel explanation of aggression theory and child abuse as follows: 

Hostile aggression in humans appears to be highly attributable to situational cues and characteristics of the individual (Averill, 1983; Berkowitz, 1983; Zillman, 1979). In the case of abusive parents, the situational cues involve aversive behaviour or features of the child, and the presumed individual characteristics include such factors as oversensitivity (Knutson, 1978), disinhibition of aggression (Zillman, 1979), poor skill repertoire (Novaco, 1978), and related characteristics of the adult. Experiments with normal subjects have determined that anger, a precursor to aggression, is a highly interpersonal emotion that typically involves a close affectional relationship between the angry person and the target (Averill, 1983). To explain how anger may lead to aggression, Berkowitz (1983) maintained that the paired association of noxious events (such as child tantrums) with otherwise neutral stimuli (such as child’s facial expression) can evoke aggressive responding in the adult in subsequent interactions. Presumably, the adult is responding to cues that have previously been associated with frustration or anger, and the adult’s behaviour toward the child may be potentiated by these conditioning experiences (Berkowitz, 1983; Vasta, 1982). 

Abusive families and distressed families (clinic families referred for child behaviour problems) have aggression in common, and several studies have used distressed parents as a group with abusive parents (Lahey, Conger, Atkeson, & Teiber, 1984; Lorber, Felton, & Reid, 1984; Wolfe & Mosk, 1983). Distressed and abusive families are thought to have similar coercive interactions between parents and among parents and children. Thus marital variables (e.g., marital conflict, spouse abuse) seem to be salient for both groups. In both distressed and abusive families, the parent and the child are more likely to reciprocate aversive behaviour and to maintain higher levels of conflict than in normal families.  

Patterson (1986) presented three interlocking structural equation models focusing on three characteristics of antisocial children: (a) children do not outgrow antisocial problems; (b) antisocial problems covary with a myriad of other problems such as academic , rejection by peers, and possible low self-esteem; and (c) antisocial children have parents who lack family management skills. He suggested that these three characteristics define different stages of the same process.  

Fundamental to Patterson’s model is the coercive process. The coercive process is the theoretical suggestion that parents of conduct-disordered children are trapped in many different types of negative relationships and life experiences. It specifically refers to the aversive interchanges between aggressive children and their parents. In effect, it has been observed that maternal reprimands (apparently aversive stimuli) seem to serve as positive reinforcers for some children.  

Patterson (1982) suggested that a mediating variable for antisocial behaviour in children consists of disruptions in family management skills. Family management skills include (a) clearly stated house rules, (b) parental monitoring of child behaviour, (c) parental sanctions (providing consequences contingently), and (d) problem solving (e.g., crisis management, negotiating compromises). Disruptions in family management skills are due to a deficit in problem-solving skills. 

Research suggests that the separate tracks of conduct disorder research and child abuse research may be overlooking the fact that samples of conduct-disordered children and abused children may overlap or often even be the same (Glaser, 1989). Many of the needs of aggressive and abusive families overlap, and treatment for both groups takes a similar form. Wolfe (1985) recommends that every community offer programs to reduce situational demands on parents and develop programs to help increase parental competence. Respite homes and relief parents could provide temporary relief for child-related demands. More stable provisions for relieving child distress include subsidised daycare and preschool for families, volunteer homemaker programs that provide non-threatening, paraprofessional treatment, and early stimulation programs for enhancing the child’s abilities in such areas as and social interaction. With regard to prevention of family violence, there should be attempts to teach alternatives to violence, to promote the effective quality of family relationships, and to encourage the inhibition of anger in aggressive ways. 

Glaser (1989) has suggested that intervention programs address parent and child cognitive styles, specifically parent attributions of child behaviour and child attributions of parent behaviour. In addition to teaching parents anger control, stress management, and parental competency skills, children should be taught ways of interacting and solving problems with their parents. Part of this includes learning how to minimise the eliciting of aversive parent behaviour by children. Of course, the best way to teach this is in context. As a result, therapists, counsellors, and paraprofessionals can have the opportunity to observe, model, and intervene in parent-child interactions. Finally, family environment, especially level of conflict within the home, cannot be ignored by any form of intervention. A systemic approach is recommended, namely, addressing marital or spousal conflict, conflict with authorities or government agencies, social isolation problems, and poverty.


©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.