Identifying Child Abuse and Neglect: Possible Behaviorial and Environmental Characteristics of Abusive Adults

No single personality trait or life circumstance characterizes a person who abuses or neglects a child. Rather, child abuse and neglect derive from the complex interactions of a variety of psychosocial and social components. These include the particular psychological makeup of individuals, family dynamics, social stressors, and cultural milieus. As a mandated reporter you should be alert to a pattern of risks that arouses your suspicion. At the same time, your suspicions may not be borne out. Most people under stress do not victimize their children. The presence of risk factors may point to a need for further investigation and future intervention, but should never be considered proof of child abuse or neglect. Many nonabusive individuals share similar attributes.

These are some of the major risk factors that may predispose an individual to abuse or neglect a child; but nothing takes the place of careful investigation of individual situations:

  • A history of having been abused or neglected as a child: This a a major risk factor. People who were abused or neglected when they were children were taught at an early age that aggression is appropriate in interpersonal relations. These people have difficulty forming healthy attachments to significant others. They are also liable to pass on the kind of parenting they experienced, transmitting abuse and neglect from one generation to the next.
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs: The priority of addicted parents is to satisfy their addictive cravings, not to care for children. The crack epidemic, in particular, has caused overwhelming increases in the number of abuse and neglect cases being prosecuted in the Family Court. Because their mothers used drugs during pregnancy, children are being born with positive toxicologies; because their parents use drugs, children are being left unattended and unfed, and are being maimed and bruised. Crack is an especially pernicious drug because it is sold in inexpensive doses and because addiction to crack develops and progresses rapidly. Yet the most common substance abuse is alcohol. Under the influence of alcohol or drugs, people can lose their inhibitions and impulse control.
  • Lack of emotional or social support: Abusive parents are often socially isolated and lack close ties to relatives, friends, neighbors, and community groups. Not surprisingly, such parents tend to have low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. They tend to have difficulty asking for and receiving the kind of help and support they need for themselves and their children, and equate asking for help with failure. They commonly deny abusive or neglectful behavior, in part because of their feelings of failure and shame.
  • Relationship problems and single parenting: Conflict between parents can affect the type of care children receive and the problems they develop. For example, marital hostilities have been associated with feeding problems of infants; frequent punishment of children throughout the school years; and the disinclination of some fathers to be involved in rearing their offspring.
  • Poor physical or mental health: Poor health or chronic illness can make it difficult for parents to take proper care of their children. Although serious mental illness is not widely related to child abuse, bizarre delusions lead some people to engage in irrational forms of child rearing.Typically, however, abusive parents suffer personality disorders.
  • Life crises: Unemployment and underemployment, housing problems, and other major hardships can undermine parents' self-esteem and tolerance for frustration.
  • Teenage parenthood: Teenage pregnancy has far-reaching consequences, including the risk of child abuse and neglect. Teenagers who have babies are often immature, uninformed about child development and child care, and educationally and financially disadvantaged. They also face the daunting challenge of negotiating two periods of great developmental change at once — adolescence and parenthood.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Immature parents whose own needs for love and nurturance remain unmet often have inappropriate expectations of their children to fulfill those needs. They may view their children as miniature adults and react with rage when their expectations are not met, or they may misinterpret normal behavior. For example, a parent who lacks knowledge of normal child development may experience the persistent crying of a newborn as accusatory and rejecting, and the bowel movement of a six-month-old at an inconvenient time as willful. Some people see a hungry infant as a greedy parasite who will exhaust reserves of food, energy, or love. Children whose temperament conflicts with the parent's are particularly likely to be the target of unrealistic expectations, as are premature babies, low birth weight babies, and young children with such disabilities as mental retardation and cerebral palsy.
  • Poverty or homelessness: Affluence is not a safeguard against child abuse, which cuts across all social classes. But child abuse and neglect are strongly related to poverty. While it is essential to remember that most poor people do not abuse their children, low income — which means that people have fewer resources, both economic and emotional — adds to family stress, and living in substandard housing exposes children to health and safety hazards.
  • Casual attitude toward the child's health care: Neglectful parents can be seriously deficient in empathy and unresponsive to a child's distress when he or she is ill or otherwise in need of medical attention. Seeking to avoid being reported, a parent may also keep the child from routine checkups or immunizations.
  • Absence of nurturing attitudes: In some cultures corporal punishment of children is an unquestioned norm, and there are parents who believe that showing affection spoils a child.