Almost Universal in American Families
November 15, 2003
For their article, "Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity," in the November issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers Straus and Field studied 991 American parents. Almost all of the parents reported yelling, screaming, or shouting as a method of correction or to control the behavior of the child. "This means," states Straus, "that nearly all parents, regardless of other demographic characteristics, used at least some psychological aggression as a disciplinary tactic."
In their article, Straus and Field note that parents and authorities are reluctant to label this type of aggression as abuse. One reason for the reluctance may be the widespread belief that such a label would require criminal justice or child-welfare intervention. "Not true," states Straus. "Many less extreme steps to end psychological aggression are possible, starting with public service television spots to sensitize parents to the problem." The researchers also disagree with another widespread belief that the resilient child is not harmed by the occasional instance of psychological aggression. "There is no empirical evidence," Straus stated, "to indicate occasional psychological abuse, such as the frustrated parent 'blowing off steam,' is harmless."
Two other common arguments are given for the lack of recognition of psychological aggression as abuse. The first argument is that even the most loving parents will occasionally "lose it." Straus and Field comment that this is an explanation for some types of psychological aggression, rather than a justification for this behavior. And, second, there's the difficult issue of when to draw the line between psychological aggression and abuse. "Is it the 10th time or the 25th time?" ask the authors. Straus's own opinion is that, "Any psychological aggression is abuse the moment it is done."
"Throughout his career," states Greer Litton Fox, Professor of Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee, "Murray Straus has opened our collective eyes to the negative side of family life and forced the American public to come to grips with issues that we might prefer to ignore. Taken all together these data suggest that nearly every child in this country with some regularity has experienced many withering outbursts from parents who were angry or upset, or in response to a child's misbehavior."
When asked where should this research go next, Fox replies, "Two directions would seem especially useful. First would be the relationships between parental verbal behaviors and the circumstances that elicit them. If we knew how they were related, perhaps we could help to reduce the amount of verbal aggression parents direct toward children. Second is the effect of parental verbal behaviors on child outcomes. We need to know in what ways, if any, the kinds of behaviors identified in this article as parental psychological aggression affect children. If we know the effects, we are in a better position to counteract them."
Straus and Field agree with Fox's assessment of future directions. But although Straus concludes that researchers need to define levels of aggression and the extent they are tied to unfavorable outcomes for the child, he stresses, "I am confident we will find that, because of its negative consequences, psychological aggression is unacceptable at any level."
The Journal of Marriage and Family is a quarterly publication of the National Council on Family Relations.
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