Researchers at Oregon State University recently completed a study that suggests the way parents view their children is a critical factor in the potential risk of child abuse, and could even be more important than whether the parents are abusive to each other.

Results of the study have been published in the Journal of Family Psychology. OSU researchers say the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse is well known. For years, the generally accepted idea is that couples who engage in domestic abuse are more likely to abuse their children.

Experts have differing opinions on the reasons why.

Some say the abuse is a learned behavior – if the father hits the mother, she is more likely to hit the children. Or the father will extend his abuse to the child as well as his wife. Others suggest that the children are unfairly blamed for the problems between the parents. The researchers at OSU found that negative perceptions of the child not only are important, they also take precedence over the parents’ relationship with each other.

“Our study found that domestic abusers are more likely to have a negative view of their child, and that negativity increases over time,” said William M. McGuigan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at OSU. “But factor out the negative views and the risk of child abuse is greatly reduced, even among couples who are abusive to each other. “Even if partners don’t hit each other, they still have increased risk for child abuse if they have a negative view of their child,” McGuigan said.

The study examined 181 low-income families involved with the Oregon Healthy Start program for more than a year. Each parent’s view of their child was assessed when their child was six months of age and then again at 12 months, using the same measurement procedures used to assess abuse risk factors. The researchers discovered that parents who felt their child was difficult or deserved punishment were more likely to abuse their children. Other negative views of the child included unrealistic expectations by parents, and a perceived lack of bonding between parent and child.

The findings suggest that the link between domestic violence and child abuse is not just a behavioral pattern, McGuigan said, but also a cognitive one. He says if you can change the thinking, you change the behavior. “In a way, the results are encouraging because the door is more open for intervention,” he said. “Basic parent education for at-risk families is one way to start. Let parents know that their baby isn’t crying to purposely anger them or to keep them from watching television. He or she is probably hungry, or hot, or wants a new diaper.”

Other cognitive techniques could be used to reduce negative perceptions of children and increase positive ones, the researchers say. Sam Vuchinich, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at OSU, and McGuigan’s doctoral adviser said one key to improving cognitions and behavior is to work with mothers early. A good time to begin, he said, is when expectant mothers are still in the hospital. “If you begin with the fact that most mothers love their babies, you have a starting point for improving their understanding of child development,” Vuchinich said. “By offering a free service, and building a relationship, you can establish trust in a program from the beginning.”

That’s exactly what the Oregon Healthy Start program does, the researchers say. In 21 Oregon counties, all first-birth mothers are approached and receive offers of help and resources, said McGuigan. This is based on the idea that all new mothers need support. Participation in the program is voluntary and the services provided are different for all families. After a relationship is established with the family, it is easier to offer help through parenting advice, development of strategies, role-playing and guided imagery, the researchers say. A key is maintaining access with parents through home visits.

The study confirmed one previous finding. Those parents who were abused as children were at greater risk for abusing their own children.

“We can’t change the abuses of the past,” Vuchinich said. “But this study clearly demonstrates the critical importance of parents’ perceptions of their child. Improving those perceptions may help prevent abuses of the future.”

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