Study of Family Interaction
Study Of Family Interaction Lead To New Understanding Of Abusive Parents
Researchers at the University of Toronto have taken important steps
toward producing a profile of an abusive parent. Prof. Gary Walters and
doctoral student Lynn Oldershaw of the Department of Psychology have
developed a system to characterize parents who physically abuse their
children. This could ultimately allow social service professionals to
Over the last five years, Walters and Oldershaw, in collaboration with
Darlene Hall of the West End Creche, have examined over 100 mothers and
their three to six-year-old children who have been physically abused. In
the laboratory, the mother and child spend 30 minutes in structured
activities such as playing, eating and cleaning-up. The family interaction
The researchers have developed a system which allows them to record the
effectiveness of parenting skills. They are particularly interested in
disciplinary strategies because abuse most commonly occurs when the parent
wants the child to comply. “It’s a question of trying to determine which
type of parent produces which type of child or which type of child elicits
which type of parental behaviour,” explains Oldershaw.
As a result of their work, Walters and Oldershaw have identified
distinct categories of abusive parents and their children.
‘Harsh/intrusive’ mothers are excessively harsh and constantly badger their
child to behave. Despite the fact that these mothers humiliate and
disapprove of their child, there are times when they hug, kiss or speak to
them warmly. This type of mothering produces an aggressive, disobedientchild.
A ‘covert/hostile’ mother shows no positive feelings towards her child.
She makes blatant attacks on the child’s self-worth and denies him
affection or attention. For his part, the child tries to engage his
mother’s attention and win her approval.
An ’emotionally detached’ mother has very little involvement with her
child. She appears depressed and uninterested in the child’s activities.
The child of this type of mother displays no characteristics which set him
In order to put together a parenting profile, the two researchers
examine the mother/child interaction and their perception and feelings. For
instance, Walters and Oldershaw take into account the mother’s sense of
herself as a parent and her impression of her child. The researchers also
try to determine the child’s perception of himself or herself and of the
parent. Abusive parents are often believed to have inadequate parenting
skills and are referred to programs to improve these skills. These programs
are particularly appropriate for parents who, themselves, were raised by
abusive parents and as a result are ignorant of any other behavior toward
her child.One of the goals of the psychologists is to provide information to
therapists which will help tailor therapy to the individual needs of the
abusive parents. “Recidivism rates for abusive care-givers are high,” says
Walters. “To a large extent, abusive parents which require a variety of
treatment. ” Their research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council.Contact: Gary Walters (416)978-7814