Discuss the Psychological Factors Involved in Child Abuse

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Discuss the Psychological Factors Involved in Child Abuse

Child abuse is a term impacted by copious multidimensional and interactive factors that relate to its origins and effects upon a child’s developing capacities and which may act as a catalyst to broader, longer-term implications for adulthood. Such maltreatment may be of a sexual, physical, emotional or neglectful nature, each form holding a proportion of shared and abuse-specific psychological considerations (Mash & Wolfe, 2005). Certainly in terms of the effects / impairments of abuse, developmental factors have been identified across all classifications of child abuse, leading to a comparably greater risk of emotional / mental health problems in adult life within the general population (Mullen, Anderson, Romans, & Herbison, 1994).

With respect to the identification of vehicles of abuse and potential psychological risk factors, research has focused upon the ‘Microsystems’ - or individual relationships and environmental structures - that exist within the child’s life (e.g. family, societal and economic factors), and victim/offender characteristics that interact with such environmental aspects to precipitate abuse (Garbarino, 1994; Mash & Wolfe, 2005).

Incidence studies have evidenced such victim-related characteristics as age, gender, health, and childhood behaviour to render children at greater risk of abuse (Mash & Wolfe, 2005; Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Mullen & Flemming, 1998). For example, children with mental / physical disabilities have been identified as up to three times at greater risk of abuse in comparison to non-disabled peers (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Crosse, Kaye & Ratnofsky, 1993). Birth complications, child-temperament, chronic / serious illness and childhood trauma are also well-recognised risk-factors of abuse in childhood (nccanch.acf.hhs.gov).

Research conducted in the United States of America clearly identifies an interaction between victim age and abuse characteristics (USDHHS, 2003). There exists a negative correlation between the onset and prevalence of physical neglect and victim age, for instance, indicative of a young child’s dependency upon the caregiver for supervision and nurture (Mash & Wolfe, 2005). The incidence of physical and emotional abuse is also most prominent during developmental periods of independence, specifically the early, pre-school and adolescent transitional stages of development (ibid). Sexual abuse has prevailed most consistently, however, from an onset of age 3 throughout childhood, highlighting the vulnerability of children across the age-spectrum (ibid). Nevertheless, victim gender is emphasised as an influential variable within the incidence and nature of sexual abuse; for females have accounted for up to 80% of reported victims and are more likely to be abused by male family members in contrast to male victims, where the perpetrator of abuse is more likely to be a non-family male offender (USDHHS, 2003; Berliner & Elliott, 2002). Physical attractiveness, social isolation and early sexual maturation are further female-specific victim-characteristics associated with increased vulnerability to sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Baron, 1986; Ferguson & Pigott, 2000; Fleming, 1997; www.aifs.gov.au).

In contrast, the most frequent manifestations of abuse in its physical, emotional and neglectful contexts are identified during episodes of challenging child behaviour with attention-seeking characteristics, such as disobedience, physical / verbal conflict, situations of potential danger and accidents, which may be viewed as triggers of adult tension and anger (Mash & Wolfe, 2004). Although negative, such abuse may feed a child’s perceptions of control weighted by attention deprivation, thus reinforcing such negative behaviours, and leading to escalating incidences of demanding behaviour and ever increasing and distorted disciplinary measures over time (ibid). This cyclical pattern holds key attributions applicable to offender characteristics also. Physical abuse and neglect are defined as 'relational disorders', which occur most frequently during periods of stress, instability and disruption associated primarily with parental role transitions including, in particular, the postnatal attachment period and 'oppositional' stages of adolescence (Milner, 2003).

Negative arousal / emotions have been identified as common denominators of abusive conduct in adults (Averill, 2001). This may be related to the conditional nature of emotion, transforming salient events into potential triggers of negative conduct as a response to negative arousal. Within the context of abuse, such conditioning may develop throughout repeated episodes to climatic, uncontrollable measures, or result in sudden manifestations during events charged with provocation and stress for example (ibid). Certainly, high levels of offender-based stress have proven a common feature within abusive behaviour, where actions have been spontaneous and unpremeditated (Mash & Wolfe, 2005).

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With the exception of sexual abuse, which may be driven by premeditative and sexual motivations, child abuse has rarely been found to be intentional, but more commonly occurs as a result of the offender’s inability to manage childrearing demands (Azar & Wolfe, in press). Parental characteristics include information processing disturbances that reflect unrealistic expectations, distorted perceptions and attributions of negative intent concerning normal child behaviour, leading to increased levels of aggressive and inappropriate disciplinary measures (Azar, 2002; Milner 2003). In such cases, abuse may be rationalized by the perpetrator as a legitimate strategy to maintain control (ibid).


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