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Easy Target: Child Abuse and the Angry Parent

By Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.

Between eighty and ninety percent of physical child abuse is committed by parents and other caretakers (step-parents, nannies, etc), depending on which study one consults.

In Colorado in 2005, 30,000 children were reported to have been neglected or abused, as stated at www.childabuse.org, and 9,000, or just over a third, were substantiated. While neglect is the largest category, at nearly 47%, it was followed by physical injury abuse, and then a combination of both, with an average of twenty deaths of neglected and abused children per year in that state.

Seventy-five percent of these fatally injured children were under the age of four, and across the country, the leading cause of death of children less than one year of age is some form of abuse. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that in 2002, children this age made up 41% of the child fatalities from abuse. The child's dependency, size, pressing needs, and inability to defend itself, hide or run away puts him or her at highest risk among those with a tendency to abuse (with slightly more male than female children suffering from fatal attacks). They're also not as resilient as older children.

Even so, studies from Colorado and North Carolina estimate that as many as 60% of deaths resulting from abuse or neglect are not recorded as such. This is due, in part, to the fact that some death certificates are miscoded, many coroners have no training in recognizing the signs, medical personnel overlook subtle clues to abuse, some social workers keep the material confidential, and some murdered children's bodies are dumped or secretly buried.

In some cases, an inept nanny or inexperienced mother simply mishandled the child and may have caused damage by just shaking too hard, pushing or inadvertently dropping. However, the type of injury that causes severe brain damage or chronic bruising and breakage indicates other types of problems — and they're largely veiled in the secrecy of the home. Not all abusive caretakers are alike, so let's look more closely at the type of person who could have inflicted the kinds of injuries found during the autopsy of eleven-week-old Jason Midyette. Reportedly, his skull was crushed and twenty-seven other bones were broken. Some breaks appeared to have been healing, an indication of earlier maltreatment in his short life.

Perpetrators of Physical Child Abuse

The National Foundation for Abused and Neglected Children indicates that parents who abuse their children share some common characteristics. On their Web site, they list the following:

* They seem to be isolated from the community and have no close friends.
* When asked about a child's injury, they offer conflicting reasons or no explanation at all.
* They seem unwilling or unable to provide for a child's basic needs.
* They expect too much of their children.
* They don't supervise or discipline their children in ways that teach them to correct their behavior.

The U. S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect also issued a generic profile (guardedly, given the lack of formal studies), indicating that parental abusers are mostly like to be in their mid-twenties, without a high school diploma, depressed, living in poverty, and having difficulty coping with stress. They've often experienced abuse themselves, and in a recent study on the brain, it was suggested that as abused children, their serotonin levels diminished, which became an influential factor in their adult depression and aggression.

While mothers are most often involved in deaths of children resulting from neglect (sometimes intentional), fathers are most often at fault in deaths that result from physical violence. This percentage is smaller, but the injuries are much more shocking. So let's look at some of the possible causes.

Sometimes a significant stress, such as divorce, moving, a change in the household, or sudden unemployment can trigger uncharacteristic aggression against children, because they're the easiest target against which to express physiological disturbances from disappointment, fear, and anger. In addition, some parents lack knowledge about developmental processes, so their erroneous expectations can create a form of stress that triggers maltreatment.

A child who makes unexpected demands with loud crying, waking up more often than anticipated, and being generally difficult may provoke a parent to act out suddenly, with violence. Such incidences are generally followed by horror and remorse, and quick action to ensure that the child is all right. However, a child who may have been unwanted may cause feelings of resentment. Much of the household stress will be blamed on the child, deservedly or not.

However, parents with substance abuse problems (particularly substances that decrease inhibitions and fuel aggression) may act out against a child while under the influence, smacking, pushing or hitting in a way they would never do in a normal state. No statistics are available on this, as it's difficult to know when parents have thus indulged, especially with illegal substances.

Then there are anger management issues, especially for people who feel a strong need to control their environment and dominate others; they're more prone to inflicting chronic physical violence if they feel the threat of losing control. In fact, it's a fearful reaction, intended to maintain a sense of safety by making everyone around them predictable. Yet people — especially young children — are not so easily cowed. The person who needs to dominate may take several increasingly aggressive steps to exert control, until they end up breaking bones, bruising, withholding food and water, locking children for long periods in a closet or room, and taking extreme measures of punishment that they justify as discipline. They simply want to keep order in the home, but in the process, they damage the child, sometimes fatally.

Then there's the successful person who dominates others, who is atypical of the general profile. They're not driven by fear but by the feeling that they're entitled to have their world just as they want it. When someone in that world fails to conform, they feel justified in taking whatever steps they deem necessary to force that person to do what they want. Some parents, more typically the father, feel outright resentment toward a child, especially if the child disrupts an ordered world where they usually feel powerful and assured. To such people, their own needs come first and must be met as they see fit. The others are mere instruments in their goals.

However, babies and young children have little comprehension of this and little ability to respond to adult needs. As such, they're vulnerable to being victimized, particularly by ongoing physical abuse. If the abuse works to elicit the desired behavior, the abuser will use it again and again. This person is used to success and will generally follow a pattern of behaviour that ensures it.

Female Crime

Every year, about 11,000 children are killed by their parents, and mothers or stepmothers account for about half of these murders, actually slightly more than half (statistics vary from 53% to 57%). The most typical pattern is for a female offender to kill a child while the child is young or still an infant. When fathers or stepfathers murder their children, the child is typically age 8 or older. Here's a comparison table of who kills whom based on 1998 data:





Spouse 28% 6%
Ex-spouse 2% 1%
Child 17% 8%
Boy/Girlfriend 14% 4%
Acquaintance 32% 55%
Stranger 7% 25%

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