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Factors that Contribute to Child Abuse and Neglect

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Research has recognized a number of risk factors or attributes commonly associated with maltreatment. Children in families and environments where these factors exist have a higher probability of experiencing maltreatment.

A greater understanding of risk factors can help professionals working with children and families identify maltreatment and high-risk situations so they can intervene appropriately. It must be emphasized, however, that while certain factors often are present among families where maltreatment occurs, this does not mean that the presence of these factors will always result in child abuse and neglect.

Factors associated with increased risk of child maltreatment are often grouped according to the following categories:

  • Parent or caregiver factors

  • Family factors

  • Child factors

  • Environmental factors

  • Risk factors by type of abuse

1. Parent or caregiver factors

  • Personality Characteristics/Mental Health
    No consistent set of characteristics or personality traits has been associated with parents or caregivers who maltreat. However, some characteristics identified in those who are physically abusive or neglectful may include low self-esteem, belief that events are determined by chance or outside forces beyond one's personal control, poor impulse control, depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior.

  • History of Abuse
    While the estimated number varies, child maltreatment literature indicates that some maltreating parents or caregivers were victims of child abuse and neglect themselves. Research suggests that about one-third of all individuals who are maltreated as children will subject their children to maltreatment, further contributing to the cycle of abuse. Children who either experience maltreatment or witness violence between their parents or caregivers may learn violent behavior and may also learn to justify that behavior.

  • Substance Abuse
    Research indicates there can be a link between substance abuse and child maltreatment. Substance abuse may be a contributing factor for between one-third and two-thirds of maltreated children in the child welfare system. The number and complexity of co-occurring family problems often make it difficult to understand the full impact of substance abuse on child maltreatment.

    During the past decade, prenatal exposure of children to drugs and alcohol during their mother's pregnancy, and its potentially negative developmental consequences, has been an issue of particular concern. In the United States, the number of children born each year exposed to drugs or alcohol is estimated to be between 550,000 and 750,000.

  • Child-Rearing Approaches
    Negative attitudes about a child's behavior and inaccurate knowledge about child development may play a contributing role in child maltreatment. Some studies have found that mothers who physically abuse their children have both more negative and higher than normal expectations of their children, as well as less understanding of appropriate developmental norms. A parent's lack of knowledge about normal child development may result in unrealistic expectations and culminate in inappropriate punishment.

    Research on maltreating parents found that they were more likely to use harsh discipline strategies and less likely to use positive parenting strategies such as time outs, reasoning, and recognizing and encouraging the child's successes.

  • Teen Parents
    Some studies of physical abuse, in particular, have found that teenage mothers tend to exhibit higher rates of child abuse than did older mothers. Other factors, such as lower economic status, lack of social support, and high stress levels, may contribute to the link between adolescent mothers or young parents and child abuse.

2. Family Factors

Specific life situations of some families, such as single parenting, domestic violence, and stressful life events, can contribute to the likelihood of maltreatment. The following are family factors that potentially contribute to maltreatment:

  • Family Structure
    Research indicates that some children living with single parents may be at higher risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse and neglect than children living with two biological parents. Some single parent households are more likely to have incomes below the poverty line. Lower income, increased stress associated with the total burden of family responsibilities, and fewer supports are thought to contribute to the risk of single parents maltreating their children.

  • Domestic Violence
    Research indicates that in 30 to 60 percent of families where spousal abuse takes place, child maltreatment also occurs. Children in violent homes may witness parental violence, be victims of physical abuse themselves, and be neglected by parents who are focused on their partners or unresponsive to their children due to their own fears. Even if children are not maltreated, they may experience harmful emotional consequences from the violence they witness.

  • Stressful Life Events
    Stress is thought to play a significant role in family functioning, although its exact relationship with maltreatment is not fully understood. In various studies, physical abuse has been associated with stressful life events, parenting stress, and emotional distress. Similarly, some studies have found that neglectful families report more day-to-day stress than non-neglectful families.

    It is not clear, however, whether maltreating parents actually experience more life stress or, rather, perceive more events and life experiences as being stressful. In addition, specific stressful situations (e.g., losing a job, physical illness, marital problems, or the death of a family member) may exacerbate certain characteristics of the family members affected, such as hostility, anxiety, or depression, and that may aggravate the level of family conflict and maltreatment.

3. Child Factors

Factors such as a child's age and physical, mental, emotional, or social development may increase the child's vulnerability to maltreatment.

  • Birth to age 3
    The rate of documented maltreatment is highest for children between birth and 3 years of age. It declines as age increases.

    Infants and young children, due to their small physical size, early developmental status, and need for constant care, can be particularly vulnerable to certain forms of maltreatment, such as Shaken Baby Syndrome and physical neglect.

  • Disabilities
    Children with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities are 1.7 times more likely to be maltreated than children without disabilities.

    Children who are perceived by their parents as "different" or those with special needs, chronic illnesses, or difficult temperaments may be at greater risk of maltreatment. The demands of caring for these children may overwhelm their parents. Disruptions may occur in bonding or attachment processes, particularly if children are unresponsive to affection or separated from parents by frequent hospitalizations.

    Children with disabilities also may be vulnerable to repeated maltreatment because they may not understand that the abusive behaviors are inappropriate, and they may be unable to escape or defend themselves in abusive situations.

4. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as poverty and unemployment, social isolation, and community characteristics may enhance the risk of child maltreatment.

The following environmental factors may contribute to an increased risk of maltreatment:

  • Poverty and Unemployment
    While most poor people do not maltreat their children, poverty can increase the likelihood of maltreatment, particularly when poverty interacts with other risk factors such as depression, substance abuse, and social isolation.

  • Social Isolation and Social Support
    Compared to other parents, parents who maltreat their children report experiencing greater isolation, more loneliness, and less social support.

  • Violence in Communities
    Children living in dangerous neighborhoods have been found to be at higher risk for neglect, physical abuse, and sexual victimization.

    Furthermore, societal attitudes and the promotion of violence in cultural norms and the media have been suggested as risk factors for physical abuse.

5. Risk Factors by Type of Abuse

Certain risk factors are commonly related to certain types of abuse.

  • Child neglect

  • Sexual abuse

  • Physical abuse

  • Emotional abuse

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