Child abuse can take many forms for many reasons. The boyfriend who puts out his cigarettes on his girlfriend’s child’s stomach, a child from another boyfriend, may have different psychological issues driving the action than the mother who regularly beats her two-year old, or than the young man who forces sexual acts on a 12-year old boy. All the actions are heinous, but we’re often frustrated in our efforts to understand and deal with child abusers because each case has unique features.

A colleague once described some preliminary data from his research. Some participants were moms who had physically abused and neglected their child, and, through court rulings, had temporarily lost custody of the child and been ordered to attend counseling sessions. A second group of moms also had one child, but had “normal,” stable home lives. For both groups, the moms’ child was between 2 and 5.

Each mom was tested individually. They were first wired up to a polygraph to measure physiological signs of arousal (heart rate, respiration, palm sweating), and then they watched two videos. One showed an infant smiling while lying on a mattress; the other showed an infant crying loudly while lying on a mattress. After each video the moms were asked how they felt while watching it, and what they thought was going on with the infant.

When the non-abusive moms watched the smiling video, they showed no physiological arousal. They said the video was pleasant to watch; the infant was obviously happy and enjoying interacting with whomever was present. The abusive moms, however, showed elevated physiological arousal when watching the smiling tape. Their interpretations of what the infant was feeling, however, were somewhat mixed. They said things like, “I’m not sure what’s going on”; “The kid may be tricking the caregiver into giving it something sweet”; “It may be burping and causing its expression.”  These moms did not enjoy watching the tape and seemed unsure about what was going on.

When the non-abusive moms watched the crying video, they show increased physiological arousal. This tape was very unpleasant for them, and they all said words like, “He’s really upset about something. Probably hungry, or needs to be changed, or just needs to be held and cuddled and talked to.” The abusive moms? They also showed increased physiological arousal to the crying tape. However, they interpreted the crying as criticism directed at the caregiver. “This baby is really angry at whoever is taking care of him. He’s saying that she’s doing a lousy job.”

So, what’s going on here? The researchers hypothesized that the abusive moms were poor at reading social signals from the infant. A smile, a cry…..what do they mean? What do they tell me I need to do? Abusive moms, the psychologists believe, just can’t interpret social signals. For most of us, a smile usually means, “I’m happy and love you”; a frown or cry means, “I’m hurting and need you to care for me.” Unable to sort out this information in their daily interactions with their child, the abusive moms get frustrated, angry, and lash out physically at the helpless child. Plus, when the child acts irritated, the moms conclude he is irritated at them.

Where could this insensitivity to social cues come from? One possible cause is that the abusive moms were raised in abusive homes. In fact, nearly 40% of the moms in this study indicated their childhood home was physically abusive. Imagine being raised in a home where you’re spanked, hit, pushed, and yelled at on a regular basis, regardless of what you do; whether you reach out lovingly to parents, or show anger toward them, or try to avoid them, the result is the same: anger and rejection aimed at you.

Being raised in such a world would make social signals a mystery to you: “What do I have to do to give and receive support and affection?” Simply put, this childrearing pattern makes it difficult to learn how to give and receive love. Thus, in other settings, when someone reaches out, you don’t know how to react. And when you don’t know how to react to a signal, that signal becomes aversive, a threat that reminds you of your inadequacies. And so it is for our abusive moms: “Why are you smiling? What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do? Damn you!” The crying infant? “OK, I get it…I’m a lousy mother. Why do you have to remind me? Damn you!”

The lesson here about social signals has broad relevance for everyday interactions far beyond cases of child abuse. Most of us, for instance, are not threatened by social signals from others because we recognize them and know how to react. But what about the young man who ends relationships as soon as the girl begins to get serious? What’s his problem? Deep inside is he anxious about commitment because he never really learned how to give and receive love? Are such positive expressions toward others mysterious psychological threats that must be avoided? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know precisely the negative coping consequences of avoidance.

One final word: problems deciphering social signals are in no way the explanation for all cases of child abuse. As we said at the beginning of this post, each case is different and unique. Think of trying to analyze human behavior as doing a challenging puzzle. You may have three people before you, each one a child abuser, but each one will have different pieces to their puzzle. Yes, some pieces will appear in all three puzzles, but for the most part, each puzzle will have pieces not found in the others. Sensitivity to social signals is such a puzzle piece; it may appear in many, but not all, cases of child abuse.





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