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What Types Of Parents Are More Likely To Physically Abuse Their Children?


Stith’s (2009) Meta-Analysis :

A study carried out by Stith et al. (2009) reviewed 155 other studies (this is called a meta-analysis) that had already been carried out in order to identify factors that put the child at risk of physical abuse by his/her parents.

In order to identify these factors, one part of Stith’s study examined which particular characteristics of the parent put that person at increased risk of physically abusing his/her child. I list these characteristics below :

Characteristics Of Parents That Increase The Probability That They Will Be Physically Abusive Towards Their Child/Children (according to Stith’s, 2009 meta-analysis of 155 previously published studies) :

  • alcohol abuse by a parent
  • the parent is single
  • the parent is unemployed
  • the parent abuses drugs
  • the parent approves of corporal punishment as a means of instilling discipline in / control over the child
  • the parent has poor coping skills
  • the parent has health problems
  • the parent has poor problem-solving skills
  • parent lacks social support
  • the parent is involved in criminal behaviour
  • the parent is under significant stress
  • the parent suffers from significant anxiety
  • the parent suffers from mental illness
  • the parent suffers from depression
  • the parent suffers from low self-esteem
  • the parent has problems controlling their own anger
  • the parent had a dysfunctional relationship with their own parent/s
  • the parent suffers from hyper-reactivity / has poor control of emotions

Which Of The Above Are The Biggest Risk Factors?

According to Stith’s (2009) research, of the 18 risk factors listed above, those which put the parent at highest risk of physically abusing his/her child were as follows :

  • parental hyper-reactivity
  • parental problems controlling own anger

Other Considerations: Family Factors :

Stith also found that, in addition to the above factors, certain factors relating to the family could also increase the risk of a parent physically abusing his/her child. These were as follows :

  • poor level of family cohesion
  • significant conflict within the family
  • low level of marital satisfaction
  • violence between the spouses
  • low socioeconomic status
  • the family includes a non-biological parent
  • size of family

Which Of These Family Factors Put The Child Most At Risk Of Being Physically Abused Within The Home?

According to Stith’s (2009) research, of the seven risk factors listed above, those which put the parent at highest risk of physically abusing his/her child were as follows :

  • significant family conflict
  • poor level of family cohesion



According to Dailey, a parent may become abusive towards the child in a bid to exert/reinforce/establish his/her power over the child who is viewed as being incompetent and in need of being taught to behave. By employing the use of physical violence the parent seeks to instil fear in the child and cause him/her pain so that the child will comply with his/her wishes and the family authority structure will be perpetuated.


According to Gil, the main cause of parental physical abuse against the child is STRESS.

Gil stated that incidences of physical abuse were more often reported by the poor than by the more wealthy (although he did also acknowledge that this could be partly explained by a reporting procedures bias). He theorized that physical abuse was more common in poorer families because such families tended to be under more stress than wealthier families due to factors such as large numbers of children, cramped or overcrowded living space and, of course, having less money to spend (which may lead to debt, inability to pay bills, poor diet etc). Controversially, Gil also suggested the use of physical force may be generally more accepted amongst those from low socioeconomic groups.

However, recent studies suggest that, indeed, maltreatment of children is more common amongst families experiencing financial hardship. For example, a study (Lefebvre et al. 2013) found that children from such families were at double the risk of being mistreated compared to the ‘average child.’

Gelles’ Social Psychological Model Of The Causes Of Childhood Abuse

Gelles suggested there were three main categories of stress:

  1. Stress between parents (e.g. constant conflict between the two parents).
  2. Structural stress (this kind of stress, according to Gelles, included, for instance, unemployment and a large number of children)
  3. Child-produced stress (e.g an unwanted child)

Gelles also acknowledges that stress is not the only cause of child maltreatment and that other factors need to be taken into consideration such as the culture and society within which the family exists as well as the parents’ own childhoods (i.e. were they themselves abused and/or neglected?).



Richard Gelles. Child abuse and social pathology. A sociological critique and reformulation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 43 (July 1973)pp.617-619

Rachael Lefebvre. et al., Examining the Relationship between Economic Hardship and Child Maltreatment Using Data from the Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2013 (OIS-2013). Scott J. Hunter, Academic Editor

Stith, Sandra & Liu, Ting & Davies, L. & Boykin, Esther & Alder, Meagan & Harris, Jennifer & Som, Anurag & McPherson, Mary & Dees, J.E.M.E.G.. (2009). Risk factors in child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 14. 13-29. 10.1016/j.avb.2006.03.006.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)