Physical Child Abuse: Self-Perceptions

HARDIMAN, L.(Lee Marsh)                     GLIDDEN, M.
 VADEBONCOEUR, D
1987

 INTRODUCTION

The Problem
Child abuse is a widespread problem in today's society.  More and more reports are made by physicians and law enforcement agencies concerning the abuse of children.

It has been fairly well documented that children who were abused become abusive parents.(1) In some cases, therapy may help to break the cycle of abuse.  Consider though, that a person will not go for therapy if they do not believe that they have a problem. Many parents believe that the "punishments" that they mete out to their children are "acceptable" and "appropriate." They may only realize that they have been abusing their children when certain "professionals" tell them that what they have been doing is wrong and harmful to their children.  They may have taught their children that these '.punishments" are "for your own good" and therefore necessary. The children, in turn, may not believe that they are being abused.  However, many of these same children will grow up to abuse their own children, believing that it is right .

Research Question
Little documentation could be found concerning the possibility that people who were abused by their parents/caretakers when they were young, perceived or identified themselves as having been abused.  We tried unsuccessfully, several times, to arrive at a question with which we could work effectively. Our final decision resulted in this question: "Do individuals who experience physical child abuse, as defined by the literature, by their parents/caretakers, perceive themselves as having been abused?"

Definition
We were able to find many definitions of "child abuse." Most, however, were either too broad or too narrow in their definition.  They only focused on the physical effects of abuse, and not on the psychological effects.  Most definitions included sexual abuse and neglect, which are important aspects of abuse, were riot in the domain of our study.

After discussion, we were able to agree on two definitions.  One is provided by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.  It states:

  • (a) "Child means a person under the age of 13"
  • (b)  An .'abused ... child" means a child whose physical or mental health or welfare is harmed ... by acts...of the child's parents or other person responsible for the child’s welfare.
  • (c) "Harm" to a child's health or welfare can occur when the parent or other person responsible for the child's welfare: inflicts or allows to be inflicted, upon the child, physical or mental injury including injuries sustained as a result of excessive corporal punishment ...
  • (e) "A person responsible for a child's welfare"  includes the child's parents, guardian, foster parents .... or other person responsible for the child's welfare.
  • (f) "Physical injury" means death, disfigurement, or the impairment of any bodily organ"(2)
NOTE: We deleted various portions of the definition that refer to either sexual abuse or neglect.

Another definition is provided by Mayhall and Norgard, 1983:

"A non-accidental injury inflicted on a child by the child's parent or care-taker is construed as physical child abuse."'(3)
For our purposes and in consideration of the above definitions we have defined physical child abuse as:
Any form of hitting during punishment that is excessive (causing bruising and/or broken bones) or that causes burns, to any part of the child's body.  It excludes hitting a child with a Viand on any part of the child's body or hitting the child on the hands or buttocks with a belt or on the buttocks with a spoon or slipper/shoe, that does not result in bruising, broken bones or burns."
PRIOR RESEARCH

We could find no prior research which dealt with how people perceive abuse. The statistics that we did find concerning actual abuse and estimates of abuse always qualified their statistics by saying that it was difficult to arrive at exact numbers for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, depending on who was providing the statistics, the definitions varied, sometimes greatly.  Secondly, the statistics provided are based on reported cases of which not all turn out to be actual abuse.  One of the best studies that we found was a US national representative sample of 2,143 families.  They found an Overall Violence Index of 63.5%. This was based on the occurrence of any of the following:
"Throwing something at the other person, pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, kicking, biting, punching, hitting with an object, beating-up, threatening to use a knife or a gun. (4)

This study also provides figures that exclude some of the less serious forms of physical violence such as "throwing things, pushing, grabbing, shoving and slapping."(5) This resulted in a 14.2% Index of Severe Violence.  A third index was provided because in the US a certain amount of corporal punishment is acceptable:

Striking a child with a belt, paddle, or hairbrush as just a more severe type of physical punishment, and not child abuse, we re-computed the child abuse index without this.  The rates are, of course, lower, but still astoundingly high almost four out of every hundred children per year.(6)
This means that about 4% of American children are abused.  Green also estimated that 1.7 million children are kicked, bitten, punched, beaten-up, or attacked by a parent with a knife or gun.(7)

Another source estimates that approximately one million children are maltreated by their parents each year.  Of these children, as many as 100,000 to 200,000 are physically abused ... (8)

It has been fairly well documented that children who have been abused, grow up to become abusive parents.  Vincent J. Fontana mentions a report by Dr. S. H. Frazier Jr. who claims that in a study he did of ninety murderers, all had been victims of remorseless brutality.(9)

Another book reveals that "the researchers ... attributed the battery to the mother’s battery as a child ... and the male child batterer who is working out the experience of his battery as a child..."'.(10) It is estimated that as amny as 25% of abused children become abusive parents while only 6% of non-abused children become abusive parents. (11)

Much of the other literature that we read refers to this cycle of abuse.  It seems that we learn to be parents by watching our own parents.

METHODOLOGY

SAMPLE AND DESIGN
Due to the limited time span for our research we decided to use an accidental non-probability sample, and to use a questionnaire in the collection of our data.

We went into three psychology classes at Dawson College, Viger campus.  We distributed a closed questioned form which was completed by 61 students and then collected. we felt that since child abuse seems to be homogenous within the population, we might be able to get a fair representation.  Vincent J. Fontana states:

Men and women in every walk of life, in every economic circumstance, of every degree of education, and of many different types of backgrounds form the ranks of child abusers.  The potential for child abuse is present in every stratum of our, society." (12)
It was necessary for us to interview people without providing them with a definition of physical child abuse.  Since our interest lies in an individuals perceptions of abuse (the way they think), we could not provide a definition.

We asked respondants: "Were you ever physically abused by your parents/caretakers (the people who were responsible for your care) when you were young?" We then asked them specific questions concerning the types of "punishments" they received from their parent/caretakers.

We had considered the possibility that a respondent may change his/her opinion after completing the form but did not want them to change their original response.  To prevent this, we asked them again, at the end of the questionnaire if they had been abused.

Respondants were given the opportunity to refuse to answer the questionnaire or to stop at any point if they became uncomfortable.  We provided pamphlets which provided a phone number for the respondents if they felt that they would like to talk to someone about the subject of child abuse.

METHOD OF ANALYSIS
We used our definitions of abuse to determine if a respondent had been abused or riot.  Frequency of "hitting" was difficult to determine due to the individual personality of the respondent and their parents.  We decided that we would have to consider this in conviction with the physical, indicators.  However., if a child was "hit" on a regular basis, such as 3 or 4 times a month or 1 to 2 times a week, this was termed abuse.

FINDINGS

QUESTION "A"
Our research showed that of the sixty--one respondants, 47 (77.04%) said that they had not been abused. 13 (21.31%) said they had been abused and 1 (1.63%) did not respond.  Of the 47 who said that they had riot been abused, 40 (67.21%) were not abused according to our definition [male 14 (22.95%), female 27 (44.26%)] and 7 (11.40%) had been abused [male 5 (9.19%) and female 2 (3.29%)].

Of the thirteen respondents who answered that they had been abused, 8 (13.11%) were abused according to our definition [male 3 (4.92%) and female 5 (9.19%)].

Three respondants (4.92%) initially said that they had been abused but changed their responses when asked the second time if they had been abused.  According to our definition, none of them had been abused.

The one respondent (1.63%) which did not respond to the first question had not been abused according to our definition.  See Table I.

FREQUENCY OF BEING HIT
We asked respondents how often they were "hit" by their parents/caretakers.  Nine (14.75%) said "never"; 29 (45.90%) said one or two times in my life; 12 (19.67%) answered "one or two times a year; 2 (3.27%) said "one or two times per month; 4 (6.55%) said "two or more times a week and 5 (8.19%) did not respond.  See Table II.

RESULTS OF PUNISHMENTS
When we asked if the punishment that they received had resulted in bruises, 7 (11.47%) of the respondents said "yes", 48 (78.68%) said "no", and 6 (9.83%) did not respond.

We asked if any one had been burned as a punishment.  Fifty-four (88.52%) said "no" and 7 (11.47%) did not respond.

We also asked if any punishment had resulted in broken bones.  Fifty-three (86.88%) said "no" and 8 (13.11%) did not respond.

SPECIFIC BEHAVIORS AS PUNISHMENTS
Ten (16.39%) of all respondents did not answer section B which asked about which part of their body they were hit and what were they hit with.  Nine (14.75%) had responded that they were never hit.  Although some people said they were never hit, they did give responses that they were hit on different parts of their bodies.  Others, who did not respond to how often they were hit, did not check any of the boxes concerning where they were hit and with what.  People answered these questions on a graph.  See Appendix A.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT
We asked the respondents how they felt after they had been punished.  Eleven (19.03%) said they felt the punishment was "too much"; 3 (4.91%) said it was "not enough"; 37 (60.65%) said they "did not think about it" and 10 (16.39%0 did not respond.

We also asked them how they felt at the time (when they were punished).  Seven (11.47%) said they thought they were being abused; 46 (75.40%) said "no", they did not think they were not abused and 9 (13.11%) did not respond.

QUESTION "C"
At the end of the form we asked the same question that we asked at the beginning: "Were you ever physically abused by your parents/caretakers when you were young?" Here, nine (14.75%) said "yes" they had been abused; 49 (80.03%) said "no" they had not been abused and 3 (4.91%) did not respond.

COMBINED RESPONSES
According to our definition, 15 (24.59%) respondents have been abused.  Seven (6.66%) stated that they had been abused at the time of the punishment.

Of the 15 (24.59%) respondents who were abused, 7 (46.66%) or 11.47% of the total respondents said that they had NOT been
abused; S of the fifteen (53.33%) or 13.11% of the total said that they  had been abused.

Five respondents (8B.20%) of the total (61) said that they had been abused but were not abused according to our definition.

Of the 11 respondents that stated that their punishment was "too much," 8 (13.11% of the total) had been abused.  They all had been bruised as a result of their "punishments." The other three respondents (4.91% of the total) said that their punishments were "too much," but according to our definition they had not been abused.

DISCUSSION

Our main concern throughout this study was to determine if people who were abused by their parents/caretakers perceived themselves as having been abused.  We needed to limit our research, however, to physical child abuse due to the wide scope of abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, and neglect).  Even in the field of physical abuse we had to limit our attentions to certain behaviors that could come under the heading of "hitting" or "punishment".  Our limited time frame made this necessary.  While we realize the risk of harm due to many forms of abuse, we saw the necessity of narrowing our attention as much as possible.  We do not intend that our study should be a representation of all forms of abuse or even of all forms of physical abuse.

To test a respondant's perception of the "punishment" that he/she received as a child, we simply asked them if they thought they had been abused.  We could not provide a definition of abuse because we needed to know what they believed about their own experience before we saw them.  We also considered the possibility that a respondent might change his/her response after completing the questionnaire.  They might come to realize that they had been abused.  We, therefore, repeated the initial question at the end of the form, "Were you physically abused by your parents/ caretakers when you were young?" This hopefully would prevent respondents from changing their initial response, altering our results.

Since perception is a theoretical concept we had to  find a method of measuring abuse empirically.  We asked respondants specific closed questions concerning the frequency with which they were "hit"; on which parts of their body their were "hit"; and what objects were used to "hit" them.

In our results, we found that 15 respondents (24.59%) had been abused according to our definition, (7 female-, and 9 males). 71% (5) of the abused females responded that they had been abused while only 37.5% (3) of the abused males stated that they had been abused.  This difference in identifying abuse histories may be due to a variety of causes.  Males may be more reluctant to identify themselves as a "victim" of any sort due to socialization.  Conversely, females may be socialized to accept the label of "victim" in a variety of ways.  The difference may be due to the publicity concerning .'abuse" of differing kinds, females find it easier to admit that they were a "victim."

The difference in identification does not appear to be a difference in the severity of the abuse.  Both males and females experienced similar aggressive behaviors against them, hit with a fist in the face and head; a foot in the stomach; tools on the head; shoe/slipper on the back and arms/legs; and the belt buckle on the back, buttocks and head).  It seems though that males were either more accepting of aggression against them or less willing to admit it.

Both males and females labeled punishments as abuse more often if they had been bruised although the females seemed to receive bruises more frequently.

One interesting finding that we did not expect was that 5 (8.2%) respondents stated that they had been abused but according to our definition they were not abused (##### males and 2 females).  However, all three males changed their responses to "no", they had not been abused at the end of the questionnaire.  There may be different causes for these changes.  One cause may be the completion of the questionnaire caused them to re-evaluate their beliefs concerning their '.punishments." They may have decided that since they had never experienced some of the more severe forms of abuse on the list, they had not been abused.  Another cause for the changed responses may be that they felt uncomfortable to continue to say they had been abused if they knew that someone else would not agree.  All three males stated that they had been hit "1 or 2 times in my life," they had never been bruised and they had respectively been hit with "a hand on the buttocks", "a wooden spoon and a hand on the buttocks," and '.a belt on the hands and buttocks." All three said that when they were punished they "did not think about it" and they did not think that they were abused.

The two females who said that they had been abused did not change their responses at the questionnaire.  According to our definition neither had beer) abused.  One of the females stated that she had been hit "1 or 2 times in my life", - he had never been bruised, and at the time of the abuse she did not think she had been abused.  She stated that she had been hi with "a hand on her face and on her buttocks".

The second female also stated that she had been hit "1 or 2 times in my life" and that she had never- been bruised.  She also stated that she had been hit with "a hand on her buttocks." However, she did state that at the time of the punishment she felt that it was "too much" and that she had been abused.

It is possible that there are at least two possible causes for these attitudes.  It may be that the publicity concerning "abuse" has caused them to view themselves as "'victims." They may view any type of physical punishment as an abuse against them either due to social norms or to their own family norms.  If it was not customary to use corporal punishments in their families, then and violent physical contact might be viewed as "abuse." In other words, their definition of abuse may be different than ours.

It may also be that the physical abuse was associated with other forms of abuse (either verbal, sexual, or neglect) and the combination of abuse caused the victim to see herself as having been abused.

Returning to our initial question of whether or not people who had been abused perceived themselves to have been abused, we found abuse in 24.59% of responses (15).  Of the 15 respondents who were defined as abused 7 (46.66%) responded that they had NOT been abused (11.47% of the total respondents).  Eight of the abused respondents (53.33%) identified themselves as having been abused (13.11% of the total).

The types of abuse covered almost the whole range of aggressive acts.  One female was hit in the face with a hand.  Usually we did not view this as abusive but she stated that she had been bruised from this "punishment" and we determined that excessive force was used which caused temporary disfigurement.

At the other end of the scale, some people were hit with almost anything that was available and on every part of their bodies.  People said they were hit with pots and pans and tools on their heads, belt-buckles on their face, and fists in the face, head and stomach.

We were surprised that so many (46.66/) respondents did not identify themselves as abused.  We considered that there may be many reasons for this.  It may be that aggressive behiavior was typical of "punishment" in those families and that the parents had taught the children that this was "normal," Inappropriate," and "for your own good." Also to be considered is the possibility that the forms of hitting may have been the only form of punishment known to the child.  Individuals would not know what happens in other families and have no point of reference other than personal experience.  The child may also have been taught that the punishment was something that "I deserved" and was therefore not abuse.

There may also be an unconscious reluctance to admit either that your parents had abused you or that you had been abused.  This could possibly be interpreted by the child as either "my parents are bad for abusing me" or "I am bad."

It also is possible that people simply have not thought about the issue of child abuse or that it "only happens to other people."

The implications of such a high proportion of abused respondants not identified themselves as abused may have significance to professionals concerned with child abuse.  If as many as 25% of abusive parents were abused as children, then a possible assumption may be that some of theses people who do not view themselves as victims of child abuse will later abuse their own children.  The first step to "getting help" with problems stemming from childhood abuses is that you recognize and accept that you may have a problem and need help.  While it may be true that most children who are abused do not suffer greatly from the punishments meted out to them, many do.  It (nay be necessary to find ways to inform the public about child abuse and to define it more precisely.

ASSESSMENT
We have tried to be diligent in our efforts to study how people perceive physical child abuse.  There are, however, some problems that we could not control.

This was an accidental non-probability sample.  We had no control group and no control over who we studied.  Due to the limited time frame provided we had to find our subjects, and obtain permission from three teachers who would be willing to grant us access to their classes and class time to complete the questionnaires.  We had no choice over who might be in the classes and could not make a representative sample.

Also, due to the limited time that we wanted to use in the classrooms, we needed to keep our questionnaire relatively short.  We needed to make the questionnaire in a way that it could be answered in ten minutes or less.  This required that many of the questions that we would have, liked to include had to be omitted.

We also had to consider that for some people, the information requested might renew some painful memories.  We did not want to delve too deeply into some personal areas because of memories triggered at an inopportune time.

This was a limited study from the point of view of the number of people surveyed.  We had 61 respondants.  Therefore the results cannot be truly representative.

In the analysis of the data, we were again limited.  The work was done manually which prohibited a thorough cross-indexing of our data.

We found some difficulties during the actual testing.  When we went into two of the classrooms the student as were told that when they completed the questionnaire, they could leave.  We believe that in one class especially respondents were anxious to leave and therefore did not carefully complete the forms.  We found that this group had the greatest number of unanswered questions.

In another class, respondents sat close enough together that it made it possible for one respondant to look at the answers of the respondent next to them.  This may have inhibited an abused respondent from being honest in his/her responses.

It is also possible that due to the sensitive nature of the requested information and a personal inability or reluctance to admit having been abused, a respondent may not have been totally honest.

These problems would naturally affect our results in ways that we would not be able to control.  It is also possible that more abused people are interested in psychology than the general population and that this would affect our results.


Bibliography
  • 1.  No Safe Place: Violence Against women and Children. Ed. Connie Guberman and Margie Wolfe.  Women's free Press, 1985.
  • 2.   Adolesscent abuse and neglect: intervention strategies. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Service,-.Office of Human Development Services. Administration for Children, Youth and Families Children's Bureau, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. 1980
  • 3.  Child abuse and neglect: Sharing responsibility. Mayhall and Norgard John Wiley and Son Inc. 1993
  • 4.  Violence and the Family. Ed, Maurice R. Green Westview Press, 1980
  • 5.  ibid.
  • 6.  ibid.
  • 7.  ibid.
  • 8.  Adolescent abuse and neglect: Intervention strategies.
  • 9.  Somewhere a child is crying: Maltreatment - Causes and prevention. Vincent J. Fontana.  Mentor Books. 1993
  • 10.  No safe place: Violence against women and children.
  • 11.  Social psychology: Science and application.  David L. Watson et al. quote from: Scott, Poresman and Co. Miller and Challis, 1981.
  • 12.  Somewhere a child is crying: Maltreatment - Causes and prevention.

APPENDIX A

Table I Responses to the Question "Were you ever physically abused by your parents/caretakers when you were young?"
Response
Defined 
MALE (%)
FEMALE (%)
TOTAL
NO
 NO 
14 (22.95)
  26 (42.62) 
40 (65.57)
NO
YES
5 (8.19) 
2 (3.28) 
7 (11.49)
YES
YES
3 (4.92)
5 (3.19)
8 (10.11)
YES
NO
-( ----- )
2 (3.28)
2 (3.28)
 --- 
NO
1 (1.63)
  - (------)
1 (1.63)
YES  --->NO
NO
3 (4.92) 
- (------)
3 (-----)
TOTAL
 
26 (42.62)
35 (57.39)
61 (100) 
 Table II Responses to "I was hit by my parents/caretakers
NEVER  9 (14.75%)3 or 4 times a month 2 ( 3.27%) 
1 or 2 times in my life28 (45.90%)2 or more times a week  4 ( 6.55%)
1 or 2 times a year 12 (19.67%)no response  5 ( 8.19%) 
1 or 2 times a month   2 ( 3.27%)

Table III: Specific Behaviors as Punishments
 
Face
Head
Hands
Buttocks
Back
Stomach
Legs/Arms
Other
Hand
19
10
17
33
6
0
6
2
Fist
4
4
1
0
2
1
3
2
Foot
0
1
1
2
2
2
 0
2
Belt
1
2
5
9
3
0
3
2
Spoon
0
0
1
3
1
0
3
1
Belt/buckle
0
1
3
3
1
0
4
1
Hairbrush
1
1
1
1
0
0
2
1
Tools
0
1
0
0
1
0
1
1
Pots/pans
1
2
1
0
1
0
1
1
Wood
1
1
3
2
1
1
1
1
Slipper
2
3
3
6
3
0
5
2
Other
1
1
1
0
1
0
1
1




Copyright 1987; 2014: Lee Marsh

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