The Causes of Child Abuse

Many people have difficulty understanding why any person would hurt a child. The public often assumes that people who abuse their children suffer from mental disorders, but fewer than 10 percent of abusers have mental illnesses. Most abusers love their children but tend to have less patience and less mature personalities than other parents. These traits make it difficult to cope with the demands of their children and increase the likelihood of physical or emotional abuse.

However, there is no single explanation for child maltreatment. Child abuse results from a complex combination of personal, social, and cultural factors. These may be grouped into four primary categories: (1) intergenerational transmission of violence , (2) social stress , (3) social isolation and low community involvement , and (4) family structure .

(1) Intergenerational Transmission of Violence

Many children learn violent behavior from their parents and then grow up to abuse their own children. Thus, the abusive behavior is transmitted across generations. Studies show that some 30 percent of abused children become abusive parents, whereas only 2 to 3 percent of all individuals become abusive parents. Children who experience abuse and violence may adopt this behavior as a model for their own parenting.

However, the majority of abused children do not become abusive adults. Some experts believe that an important predictor of later abuse is whether the child realizes that the behavior was wrong. Children who believe they behaved badly and deserved the abuse become abusive parents more often than children who believe their parents were wrong to abuse them.

(2) Social Stress

Stress brought on by a variety of social conditions raises the risk of child abuse within a family. These conditions include unemployment, illness, poor housing conditions, a larger-than-average family size, the presence of a new baby or a disabled person in the home, and the death of a family member. A large majority of reported cases of child abuse come from families living in poverty. Child abuse also occurs in middle-class and wealthy families, but it is better reported among the poor for several reasons. Wealthier families have an easier time hiding abuse because they have less contact with social agencies than poor families.

Alcohol and drug use, common among abusive parents, may aggravate stress and stimulate violent behavior. Certain characteristics of children, such as mental retardation or physical or developmental disabilities, can also increase the stress of parenting and the risk of abuse.

(3) Social Isolation and Low Community Involvement

Parents and caretakers who abuse children tend to be socially isolated. Few violent parents belong to any community organizations, and most have little contact with friends or relatives. This lack of social involvement deprives abusive parents of support systems that would help them deal better with social or family stress. Moreover, the lack of community contacts makes these parents less likely to change their behavior to conform with community values and standards.

Cultural factors often determine the amount of community support a family receives. In cultures with low rates of child abuse, child care is usually considered the responsibility of the community. That is, neighbors, relatives, and friends help with child care when the parents are unwilling or unable. In the United States, parents often shoulder child-care demands by themselves, which may result in a higher risk of stress and child abuse.

(4) Family Structure

Certain types of families have an increased risk of child abuse and neglect. However, single-parent families usually earn less money than other families, so this may account for the increased risk of abuse. Families with chronic marital discord or spousal abuse have higher rates of child abuse than families without these problems. In addition, families in which either the husband or wife dominates in making important decisions—such as where to live, what jobs to take, when to have children, and how much money to spend on food and housing—have higher rates of child abuse than families in which parents share responsibility for these decisions.

Material courtesy of the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.