Early Abuse Leads to Later Aggression

Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCH, MRCPsych
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 12, 2001 -- The longest continuing study of child abuse and neglect in the country has reached a conclusion -- one which is hardly surprising. School-age children who experience severe discipline, or abuse, are more likely to display aggressive, destructive behavior. More surprising, though, was the fact that among preschool-age children, a poor relationship with the mother also increased the risk of the child displaying aggressive behavior.

"One interpretation is related to the mother depriving the child of nurturing -- and with that a feeling of not being important enough to be cared for," says study author Roy C. Herrenkohl, PhD, distinguished university science professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. This sense of deprivation in turn could give rise to frustration and anger.

Then later on, when the children reach school age, Herrenkohl says severe discipline may give "instructions" to the child on how to deal with the world. The study is published in this month's issue of the journal Child Maltreatment.

What was considered severe discipline or abuse? Herrenkohl says the study used Pennsylvania law, which expects some physical mark. "Spanking was not severe discipline unless it left bruises or marks. And that underscores the problem in deciding what abuse is. Hitting with a board, a stick, a belt, or rope leaves marks. Burning invariably does." But still, he says, the most significant part of the study's findings is not so much that severe discipline affects childhood school behavior, but that the mother's level of caring played such a significant role.

Common to many "negative parenting" situations, Herrenkohl says, is low socioeconomic status -- which results in more aggressive children. "Socioeconomic status is an underlying condition that I feel gives abuse a more potent effect on a chil.," he says. "Just giving money isn't likely to be enough -- what is necessary is all that goes with a higher socioeconomic status: better access to day care, more extended family members [who can care for the child], low unemployment."

The study, which began in 1976, at first split children into two main camps. The first included families labeled by Pennsylvania law as abusive. The second group was more far-ranging, including children from neglectful but not abusive situations, and from day care programs, Head Start programs, and middle-income families that enrolled the children enrolled in private nursery school programs. "We thought these [second] groups would be relatively clear of abuse," Herrenkohl says. "What we found was there tended to be some [abuse in all groups], especially dependent on socioeconomic status."

So is "disciplinary" abuse n any way acceptable?

"Ninety percent of American parents believe spanking is acceptable," says Tasha Howe, PhD, associate professor of developmental psychology at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. "Ninety percent of developmental psychologists say it's not acceptable."

"There are much more positive ways to discipline," Herrenkohl says. "If, as a parent, you can back off when you feel yourself getting angry ... discipline does not have to be administered instantaneously. A lot depends on the age of the child. Even young children can understand simple explanations. 'You shouldn't touch that, it's dangerous.' Things like spills, which often get parents upset, can't be avoided. There are certain inconveniences to raising children and we, as parents, have to accept them." Herrenkohl also says it's important to be consistent with nonabusive discipline.

"I'm a great believer in talking to children. Explaining to them. I think they understand more than we appreciate," Herrenkohl says. And talking doesn't mean yelling. "Often what's yelled at the child is very destructive. I don't think it has anything but negative, long-term effects. It demonstrates to the child the wrong way of handling emotions. People do get angry and upset. But contrast it to the [practice of using] time-out." The message there, he says, is "you calm down, then we'll talk about it."

Do abused children become abusive adults? Sometimes. "If you look at the larger literature, from between 40% to 60% of parents who are abusers were abused themselves," Herrenkohl says. "There is a link, but it's not a foregone conclusion." One possible reason is the intervention of another, nurturing adult while the child is growing up, and/or the idea that some children are more resilient than others.

"We did a paper years ago on resilient children," Herrenkohl says. "Children abused, but not heading down the pathway to aggressive behavior. We didn't find many of them. In those we did find, a number of them said that as teenagers they decided, 'I'm not going to be the way my parents are.'"