Maternal Responsibility for Child Physical Abuse Essay

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Maternal child physical abuse is a subset of child abuse that nevertheless is considered a separate phenomenon, requiring specific explanations distinct from the explanations of paternal, caretaker, and other forms of child abuse. According to domestic, as well as cross-national studies, mothers bear responsibility for approximately half of the identified cases of parental child abuse involving physical injuries. The high rates of violence against their own children invite questions in view of generally low representation of women as compared to men as the perpetrators of other forms of physical violence. As with most forms of interpersonal violence and abuse, maternal violence against children is associated with poverty; however, material deprivation and social class are intervening rather than causal factors. Younger mothers and mothers with multiple children who had their first child at a young age, especially teenage mothers, are overrepresented among abusers.

One of the explanations provided by researchers is an opportunity thesis that concentrates on the physical proximity of women (but not men) to children as caretakers. However, in the 1990s, Leslie Margolin discovered that, when compared to women, men abuse their children out of proportion to the hours spent in caregiving, putting the opportunity theory in question.

Another set of theories explaining maternal child abuse, as well as homicide, comes out of the strain tradition in sociology and criminology. Strain theory combines the structure of opportunities with the psychological effects of continuous stress experienced by mothers involved in what Sharon Hays describes as intensive mothering. The social isolation of the nuclear family unit and labor-intensive, high-pressure mothering, when combined with additional external stress factors such as, for example, poverty, cause some mothers to lash out at the easiest and immediately available target—the child.

The contemporary nuclear family is perceived by some as a microcosm that generates internal strains and tensions through its hermetical character. Often parental abuse, maternal abuse in particular, is seen as stemming from the microprocesses of family interaction and psychological problems of the family’s individual members who become part of the ecology of a family.

Feminist psychoanalytic theories of maternal ambivalence concentrate on the integration of inherently conflicting emotions toward the child that accompany motherhood and mothering. This set of psychodynamic explanations posits that violence toward a child results when the delicate balance of loving and resentful emotions toward a child is compromised, either due to the lack of emotional maturity of the mother or due to externally induced stress.

One of the strangest and rarest forms of child physical abuse by mothers is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. In that form of abuse, a mother causes a medical condition in her child and then presents the child for medical examination while making ostensibly heroic efforts to alleviate the symptoms. Often the request for intrusive medical tests and proceedings by the mother to treat a manufactured condition is construed as a form of physical abuse in itself. As the name suggests, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is considered to be a psychiatric condition, but there are a few known instances in which cases of this form of abuse were successfully prosecuted under the criminal statutes.

In the past 30 years, maternal child abuse has been increasingly recognized as a problem properly falling within the purview of the criminal justice system. However, only a handful of mothers are prosecuted to the full extent of the original criminal charges. Most cases of maternal physical abuse are still resolved through the family courts with supervision, suspension, or withdrawal of custodial rights as outcomes. There has also been a trend to prosecute on charges of child abuse new mothers who have abused drugs and alcohol prenatally.

Most remedies proposed for dealing with maternal child abuse involve psychological counseling, parenting classes, and amelioration of stressful conditions associated with mothering. As indicated above, there is also a tendency to rely on the deterrent effect of criminal prosecutions. Feminist writings on child abuse urge reconsideration of intensive mothering as a cultural practice and easing the stresses and burdens placed on women by instituting free comprehensive child care.


  1. Bools, C., Neale, B., & Meadow, R. (1994). Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: A study in psychopathology. Child Abuse and Neglect, 18, 773–788.
  2. Dowdy, E. R., & Prabha Unnithan, N. (1997). Child homicide and the economic stress hypothesis: A research note. Homicide Studies, 1, 281–290.
  3. Margolin, L. (1992). Beyond maternal blame: Physical child abuse as a phenomenon of gender. Journal of Family Issues, 13, 410–423.
  4. Roberts, D. E. (1991). Punishing drug addicts who have babies: Women of color, equality, and the right of privacy. Harvard Law Review, 101, 1419–1482.
  5. Straus, M., & Kaufman Kantor, G. (1987). Stress and child abuse. In R. E. Helfer & R. S. Kempe (Eds.), The battered child (pp. 42–59). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Wauchope, B., & Straus, M. (1990). Physical punishment and physical abuse of American children: Incidence rates by age, gender and occupational class. In M. Straus & R. J. Gelles (Eds.), Physical violence in American families: Risk factors and adaptation to violence in 8,145 families (pp. 133–148). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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