Predicting Harsh Parenting In Toddlerhood and Beyond….

April 1, 2012 · Print This Article

Observation and research data shows that level of parent sensitivity during the first year of life can predict harsh parenting during toddlerhood.  These early predictors , while not in and of themselves the cause, put children at risk later in toddlerhood and school age for behavioral and emotional problems in both the home and school setting. These caregiving patterns, without intervention, have been shown to remain constant and stable through the child’s development into later childhood years.

Attuned sensitive caregiving involves a three task process for caregivers: 1) perceiving a child’s cue 2) interpreting the child’s cue accurately 3) responding to the child’s cues promptly and appropriately. Many internal (what is going on in the caregivers head and heart; depression; anxiety) and external factors (marriage distress; social support network; if a daycare, number of other children) are involved regarding how well a caregiver accomplishes the tasks of providing sensitive and responsive care-giving.

Harsh caregiving may include subtle and blatant acts, either verbal and/or physical ranging from ill timed tone of voice (caregiver is irritated) through physical aggression (slapping or worse).

Parents at risk for harsh and/or abusive parenting may display a challenge in one or more of the above three areas. Milner (1993, 2003) describes four stages involved in parenting strategies that  put children at risk for physical abuse.

Parents at risk for abusive behavior to children often display the following (Milner; 1993, 2003):

1) Less attentive and attuned to their children’s behavior when compared to average, non-abusive and low risk parents

2) Interpretations of the child’s behavior are often negative, including hostile intent (they are doing this to me) and generalized (they always do this; it is how they are wired)

3) Exclusion of the context of behaviors (bad day at school, sad because their friend was hurtful, it is late and the child is tired, etc).

4) Rigidity to parenting strategies and lack insight into how well their strategies are working and the emotional/physical impact of said strategies

Furthermore, other studies  have shown a lack of respect for the child economy and “physical” interference with the child’s behavior, especially during periods of exploration, are also a characteristic of some parents who demonstrate harsh/abusive parenting as a pattern.

The suggested intrusive as well as harsh/abusive parenting as a pattern seem to share a lack of empathy or understanding for the child behavior and motives in both average, daily interactions and discipline moments (Joosen, Mesman, Bakermans-Kranenburg & van Ijzendoorn, 2012).

Caregivers may be misattuned to their own thoughts and dialogues and may or may not be aware of these strategies, often using justifications for their own behavior. This adaptation may often be as of a result of their own history of being cared for, current environmental or relational conditions, and/or their own mental health issues.

For example; in a custody situation, the caregivers may be already stressed and while their has been no historical evidence of harsh caregiving, the threat of the marriage ending may produce enough stress that a parent becomes less attuned and sensitive to their child. They may read the child’s cues properly, but may attribute this cue to something that the other parent (acussed) has done to the infant/child. While the parent may respond appropriately to the child, the attribution of the child’s cue may inadvertently cause the the parent reading the cue to begin to act subtly hostile towards the other parent. Over time, this may become a full blown need to “protect” the child from the other parent and over the years resulted in intrusive caregiving to the child – questioning everything and acting very anxious – which the child would pick up on and adapt accordingly.

Meanwhile, the “acussed parent” over time experiences the child withdrawing due to the anxiety and rather than address this miscue (has a need but is expressing it indirectly, not at all or the opposite of what they need), acts on it, becoming more harsh and resentful towards the child or withdrawing from the relationship with the child.

While sometimes harsh parenting is intergenerational, sometimes it brought on by the situation and environment, and sometimes it is both.

This is why in a custody or placement decision an important part in an assessment is to evaluate the attachment of the child to each caregiver and gain a deeper understanding into the complexity of these dynamics, how to arrange a placement schedule that is beneficial to the child, and help the parents be the best versions of themselves they are meant to be. Parenting is forever – in the eyes of a child. Contact us for more information at 608-785-7000×221 or email info@effectivebehavior.com

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