Abusive Parenting Study
The study is based on pairs of biological mothers and their biological offspring children.
The mothers and their offspring were studied in a psychology lab setting where the mothers consented to be studied and had explicit knowledge that they were being recorded at all times in the lab. (with video cameras, audio recording and the mothers wearing physiological monitors).
The significance of this study is the biological mother's attempt to prove
her nurturing capability and her awareness of being watched and recorded". Being watched and recorded promotes an individual, especially a mother,
to act in socially appropriate and acceptable ways. For the average persons behavior behind closed doors is considered inappropriate and could get them into trouble, especially with the abusive parenting of a helpless child.
Behind closed doors wide spread child abuse that is most commonly
perpetrated by the abused child's parent. The results of this test to prove that the mother's were attempting to show their nurturing maternal behavior and that the more they tried, the more hostile they became toward their offspring.
Now image the abusive adoptive mother, trying to prove her superiority and entitlement through her mothering skills under the same test circumstances, where biological mothers buckled under the pressure to prove their maternal ability to nurture. They lost their composure and became hostile toward their biological child.
UO researcher finds abusive parenting has a biological basis
Studies of child maltreatment have consistently found that parents who physically abuse their children tend to parent in more hostile, critical and controlling ways. Skowron's team appears to have found evidence of a physiological basis for those patterns of aversive parenting — the use of hostile actions such as grabbing an arm or hand or using negative verbal cues in guiding a child's behavior — in a sample of families involved with Child Protective Services.
For the experiment, mothers and children were monitored to record changes in heart rate while playing together in the lab. Parenting behavior was scored to capture positive parenting and strict, hostile control using a standard coding system.
What emerged, Skowron said, were clear distinctions between abusive, neglectful and non-maltreating mothers in their physiological responses during parenting. When abusive mothers were more warm and nurturing, they began to experience more difficulty regulating their heart rate and staying calm. This physiological-based stress response then led the abusive mothers to become more hostile and controlling toward their child a short time later in the interaction. The same was not the case for mothers who had been previously identified as being physically neglectful or for mothers with no history of neglectful or abusive parenting.
"Abusive mothers who try to warmly support their child when the child faced a moderate challenge displayed a physiological response that suggested they're stressed, on alert and preparing to defend against a threat of some kind," said Skowron, a researcher at Child and Family Center/Prevention Science Institute at the UO. "This kind of physiological response then led to a shift in an abusive mother becoming more hostile, strict, and controlling ways with her young child, regardless of how her child was behaving."
The findings, she added, suggest that when physically abusive mothers experience being a nurturing parent they find it to be hard work. "It appears to quickly wear them out, perhaps because it challenges them in ways that lower-risk mothers don't experience," she said. "An abusive mother appears caught: When she does a good job with her child, it costs her physiologically, and it negatively affects her because it leads to more aversive parenting."
The team's findings help to explain why abusive parenting is so resistant to most interventions, Skowron said. "Most parents who struggle with child maltreatment really love their children and want help improving their parenting skills. Our findings suggest that many are experiencing a biological response during parenting that actively interferes with their efforts to parent in warm and nurturing ways."
The next step, she said, is exploring how to translate the new discovery into interventions specifically designed for parents struggling with child abusive. “We have to figure out how to help these high-risk parents calm themselves down more effectively and enjoy the experience of supporting their children in warm, positive ways. First, she noted, it will be important for other researchers to replicate the findings.
Co-authors with Skowron were Elizabeth Cipriano-Essel and Aaron L. Pincus, both of Pennsylvania State University where Skowron conducted this research, Lorna Smith Benjamin of the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute, and Mark J. Van Ryzin, research associate in the UO Child and Family Center and researcher at the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center.
NIH grant RO1 MH079328 to Skowron supported the research through the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional funding was provided by the Administration for Children and Families, through its Children's Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, as part of the Federal Child Neglect Research Consortium.