Hostile homes

research suggests that traditional family support services may not protect
children when warmth and affection are absent from family relationships, writes
the NSPCC’s Pat Cawson.

where child maltreatment occurs have been the subject of much research, but the
keys to the origins of abuse and neglect remain elusive. One thing we do know
is that it is a complex situation. Simplistic attempts to identify a single
cause of child abuse or neglect will probably mislead.

Maltreatment often happens in families beset
by a mix of social disadvantage, shifting family composition, strained or
violent relationships between parents, lack of family and community support,
and long-term physical and mental health problems. But it is also found in prosperous,
apparently stable, families. The Department of Health’s report, Child
Protection: Messages from Research
, highlighted the fact that high-risk
families were also punitive in their approach to child rearing, as the report
put it: "Low on warmth and high on criticism."1

There has been some controversy about this
view, because it seems to play up the personal characteristics of parents, and
offers no explanation for the consistent links found in national and
international studies between social disadvantage and maltreatment.

Typically, parents who abuse or use harsh
punishment have a negative view of their children, seeing them as deliberately
disobedient and hostile, with worse behaviour than other children, even when
independent assessment does not support this opinion.2

One of the limitations of the research
knowledge base is that there has been a reliance on studies of children known
to child welfare services, raising the possibility that these were not typical
families but had come to notice because their family functioning was
problematic. To help to address this, the NSPCC recently surveyed a random UK
sample of 2,869 young people aged 18-24. This explored their experience of
childhood, including abuse and neglect.3 Interviewed by BMRB
International, the young people entered answers directly on to laptops in order
to protect confidentiality.

The accounts of family relationships given by
young people assessed as maltreated differed markedly from those of the sample
as a whole. In the sample as a whole, 92 per cent described themselves as
having a, "warm and loving family background", compared with only 54
per cent of those assessed as having been seriously physically abused, 46 per
cent of those emotionally maltreated, 60 per cent who lacked adequate physical
care, and 77 per cent whose supervision was seriously inadequate.

The answers to questions on their closeness
to their parents, and how parents showed affection mirrored these results.
Abusive or neglectful parents were much less likely to use all ways of showing
affection, from hugs, cuddles and kisses to praise and treats. Fewer than a
third of those assessed as emotionally maltreated said that they were ever
shown physical affection. A fifth of the sample said that when growing up they
were, "sometimes really afraid" of fathers or stepfathers, and 7 per
cent of their mothers or stepmothers. It should be noted that most responses
referred to people’s biological parents and that rates of fear or abuse were no
higher for step-parents, although respondents with step-parents were less
likely to describe relationships as close. Those assessed as seriously
maltreated or reporting physical violence between parents were twice as likely
as others to report fear of parents.

Respondents were also asked whether there
were adults who, when they were growing up, they had particularly respected or
looked up to, or who had set them a good example of the sort of person they
wanted to be, or who had helped them, or who gave them a helping hand when they
were in trouble. Most named parents in all categories, but those assessed as
abused or neglected were consistently less likely to say that parents had
filled any of these roles. Failure to do so gave the best of all predictions of
childhood maltreatment. It seems that the poor view that abusive parents have
of their children is reflected in children holding an equally poor view of
their parents.

However, a lack of respect for parents, or an
inability to rely on parents for affection and help, did not necessarily mean
that there was no love. About half of those seriously physically abused by
parents, for example, still say they had warm and loving families. There are
likely to be many different explanations for this, rather than a single one.

For example, some of these young people may
simply not have understood the meaning of a warm and loving family as it was
understood by most of the sample. Also, few young people described equally dire
relationships with both parents, and perhaps in their later assessment of family
life they chose to focus on the loving parent. Research on the relationship
between childhood abuse and neglect, and women’s later mental health problems,
shows the complexity of relationships between children and parents, and the
different ways in which adults comprehend and come to terms with what happened
to them as children.4

The study also asked the young people why
they thought their abusers had behaved as they did. Again there were different
answers. Some mentioned parents coping with their own violent relationships,
stress or health problems. Others took the blame on themselves, something often
found in children because abusers attempt to justify their behaviour by saying
that the child deserved or had provoked abuse. But some thought that their
parents had disliked or resented them, or had abused them because they enjoyed
doing it.

The most serious maltreatment of children
caused physical injury or occurred regularly throughout childhood. Where
abusive or neglectful behaviour was less severe, or happened only occasionally
or for a short period, family relationships showed patterns closer to those
normal for the sample as a whole. Serious maltreatment seems more likely to
indicate a family where relationships have gone very wrong, while lesser levels
can happen in a much wider range of circumstances. Consequently this survey
adds to growing evidence that attachment disorders may be at the root of child
maltreatment where the most serious and long-standing problems are found.5

Overall, there was a considerable overlap
between different forms of maltreatment, and especially with emotional
maltreatment. Ninety-four per cent of respondents reporting this said they also
experienced physical abuse, and many of them also cited several kinds of additional
forms of victimisation. Almost two-thirds of those seriously physically abused
or reporting an absence of physical care said they also experienced other

The small number of those who said they had
been sexually abused by parents (27 young people, 1 per cent of the sample) had
the most substantial pathological pattern. Almost all of them had also
experienced physical abuse (21), emotional maltreatment (18), absence of
physical care (16), and absence of supervision (19). It appears that sexual
abuse by parents was almost a guarantee that some other form of maltreatment
was occurring, usually at a serious level.

On the other hand, absence of supervision was
less likely to be linked to poor family relationships than other forms of
maltreatment. Although for some young people it appeared to be part of a
pattern of general maltreatment and poor relationships, for most it happened in
families that were otherwise loving and close.

Not surprisingly, the study also found the
familiar links between maltreatment and social disadvantage. Low socio-economic
status, parental unemployment, limited education, financial and other stresses,
family breakdown and lone parenthood, disability and health problems, were all
there in the survey and correlated with abuse and neglect.

The survey results were subjected to analysis
using a Chi-squared Automatic Interaction Detector, a tool which assesses
interactions between possible predictors of a dependent variable. This allowed
for an exploration of the relative importance of all these characteristics or
factors as predictors of maltreatment. Overall, poor family relationships
consistently proved better predictors of abuse and neglect than did family
structure, or social disadvantage.

Of course, asking young people to
retrospectively recall their childhoods must take into account the fact or
possibility that they may not have full knowledge of stresses or health
problems experienced by parents.

Even so, the study provides substantial
evidence, which has implications for child protection practice. First, that
prevention measures may be best focused on identifying families where children
are constantly criticised or put down, and rarely shown demonstrative
affection, rather than waiting until bruises are found. Second, it supports the
use of family support programmes that directly address poor relationships;
these would seem to offer hope of substantial reduction in maltreatment,
provided that there is a core of affection to build on.

Where multi-type maltreatment is found,
however, this will nearly always include emotional maltreatment, often
reflecting a pattern of domination and control similar to that found in
physical or sexual abuse of women partners. In these instances the maltreatment
may have little to do with parental skill deficits or stresses, and traditional
family support or parenting skill programmes seem unlikely to be sufficient to
make an impact. In the case of such long-term failures in parent and child
relationships, or when parents’ behaviour reflects a consistently negative view
of their child, programmes which address parents’ longer term therapeutic needs
may well be crucial in protecting children who remain at home.

survey results:

            Weighted base              Affection shown in family

by hugs, cuddles and kisses

sample                           2,869               2,219 (77 per cent)

physical abuse              205                  94 (46 per cent)

maltreatment             162                  49 (30 per cent)

absence of care            184                  95 (52 per cent)

absence of supervision 140                  86 (61 per cent)

abuse (parents)              27                    7 (29 per cent)

Pat Cawson is head of child protection research at the NSPCC.


1 Department of Health, Child
Protection: Messages from Research
, HMSO, 1995.

2 J Gibbons, B Gallagher, C Bell
and D Gordon, Development after Physical Abuse in Early Childhood, HMSO,

3 P Cawson, Child
Maltreatment in the Family: the Experiences of a National Sample of Young
, NSPCC, 2002

4 A Bifulco and A Moran, Wednesday’s
Child: Research into Women’s Experience of Neglect and Abuse in Childhood, and
Adult Depression
, Routledge, 1998

5 N Morton and K Browne,
"Theory and observation of attachment and its relation to child
maltreatment: a review", in Child Abuse and Neglect 22 (11), 1998

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