Abusive moms can’t stay calm when they nurture

When physically abusive mothers experience being a nurturing parent they find it to be hard work, says Elizabeth A. Skowron. "It appears to quickly wear them out, perhaps because it challenges them in ways that lower-risk mothers don't experience." (Credit: pixydust8605/Flickr)

A study of physically abusive mothers shows that when they are warm and nurturing, they began to experience more difficulty regulating their heart rate and staying calm.

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.

Of the 141 mothers, 94 percent were Caucasian with a high school degree or less and incomes at or below $30,000. Their children ranged in age from 3 to 5 years old.

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Study leader Elizabeth A. Skowron, a professor in the University of Oregon College of Education, says what emerged 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,” says Skowron, a researcher at the 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 adds, 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 says. “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, reported in the quarterly journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, help to explain why abusive parenting is so resistant to most interventions, Skowron notes.

“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 says, is to explore 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.”

Co-authors with Skowron were Elizabeth Cipriano-Essel and Aaron L. Pincus, both of Pennsylvania State University, where Skowron conducted this research, alongn with Lorna Smith Benjamin of the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute and Mark J. Van Ryzin, a research associate in the University of Oregon Child and Family Center and a researcher at the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center.

The National Institutes of Health and the Administration for Children and Families funded the project.

Source: University of Oregon