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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 efectiveness 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.

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