This is an archived article.

April 13, 2000

Older children, boys more likely to be physically abused in families with history of wife abuse, study indicates

In homes with wife abuse, children ages 14 and older are more than three times as likely to be physically abused than are younger children ages 1 through 13, a study examining the risks of child abuse has found.

The research presented by Emiko Tajima, a University of Washington assistant professor of social work, at the recent Society for Social Work and Research Conference also found that boys were nearly three times as likely as girls to be physically abused in families where there is wife abuse. The study, which utilized data from the 1985 National Family Violence Survey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, focused on physical abuse, physical punishment and verbal abuse, but did not ask about sexual abuse.

The study, which used data collected from 2,733 two-parent families with at least one child under the age of 18 living at home, is the first to use this data to compare risk factors for child abuse in families where there is and is not wife abuse, according to Tajima. Wife abuse was reported in 456 of the families surveyed. No single-mother families were included in the study.

Tajima said the finding that older boys are at greater risk for physical abuse is a piece of empirical evidence that supports the contention often heard in domestic violence training and anecdotal evidence that adolescent boys sometimes get hurt in the course of intervening to protect their mothers.

“Adolescents, particularly boys, sometimes act out to protect their mothers from being abused,” Tajima said. “They might actively provoke violence or intervene so they become the targets of physical violence rather than their mother.”

While older boys seem to be at greater risk for violence, she warned that this study does not say younger children are not being abused. Rather, it is a case of adolescents being more frequent targets instead of younger children, who are commonly perceived as being the chief victims of physical abuse.

Tajima’s study also found that there seem to be universal risk factors for physical punishment in families with and without wife abuse, but different risks for physical and verbal abuse between the two kinds of families.

While age and being male put adolescent boys at risk for physical abuse in homes with wife abuse, children in families without wife abuse were at greater risk for physical abuse if a parent had been hit while growing up. Children who had problems such as being aggressive or delinquent or came from a family with large number siblings also were at increased risk for physical abuse in homes without wife abuse.
Universal risk factors for physical punishment in both types of families centered on age and childhood problems. Children between 1 and 13 were more likely than those under 1 and over 14 to be physically punished. Age of the parents also was a factor, with older parents being less likely to physically punish their children. Also children who had problems were at higher risk of being physically punished.

There were multiple and different risk factors for verbal abuse. Where wife abuse was reported, the chances of verbal abuse increased with the age of the parents, the number of children in the family, with moderate parental use of alcohol and if a parent had been hit while growing up. Also children older than 1 were more likely to be verbally abused than were infants under 1 year of age.

Among families with no wife abuse, parental alcohol use and a parent being hit during childhood also raised the chances of verbal abuse. Youngsters with childhood problems and those coming from large families also were at greater risk, as were children whose parents reported high levels of stress. Other risk factors included being a boy, lower family income and having younger parents.

Tajima’s study and the National Family Violence Survey used an instrument called the conflict tactics scale to measure wife and child abuse. Wife abuse was defined as a husband in the past year threatening to hit or throw something at his wife; throwing something; pushing, grabbing or shoving; slapping, kicking, biting or hitting with a fist; hitting or trying to hit with an object; beating up; choking, threatening with a knife or gun; using a knife or firing a gun, and forced or attempted forced sex.

Tajima’s study defined physical child abuse as throwing something at a child; kicking, biting or hitting with a fist; beating up; burning or scalding; threatening with a knife or gun and using a gun. Physical punishment included pushing, grabbing or shoving, slapping or spanking and hitting or trying to hit with an object. Verbal abuse was defined as insulting or swearing at; doing or saying something to spite a child, and threatening to hit or throw something at a child.

“Understanding the risk factors is important in making family policy and in intervening,” Tajima said. “We have lists of risk factors, but we need to know how things work in different types of families. It is important that this study be replicated with clinical samples of battered women, those living in a shelter for example, because we can’t assume the risk factors will be the same for different groups.

“Prior research has shown that children are at greater risk of being physically abused by the mother or father when there is wife abuse in the family. We know batterers and battered wives are more likely to abuse their kids. This study points to the fact that in addition to increased risk, there may be special processes occurring in homes with wife abuse.”
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For more information, contact Tajima at (206) 221-7874 or etajima@u.washington.edu