Alarming child abuse statistics highlight that parent-child aggression (PCA) remains widespread in this country, adversely impacting the short-term and long-term emotional and physical welfare of children and incurring substantial costs to society. To avoid such detrimental outcomes, efforts to avert physical child abuse must identify and tackle the key factors that culminate in PCA. Although research has implicated a number of potential risk factors for PCA, major obstacles impede our progress. Heavy reliance on self-report questionnaires to measure constructs related to PCA can be biased, which confound our ability to conclusively identify the potential mechanisms that exacerbate risk for PCA. Most researchers also typically question parents about potential PCA risk factors while not in the act of parenting, asking them to summarize their experiences and beliefs about parenting, which may not accurately reflect actual parenting behavior or cognitions. To determine if a factor contributes to PCA and actual parenting behavior, we must be confident in how the factor was measured. Risk factors should also be theoretically grounded although often such factors are studied in isolation or inadequately integrated into a cohesive model. Thus, the current project will explore the feasibility of conducting an innovative, multi-method assessment of PCA risk in a group of 100 mothers who have substantiated cases of physical child abuse. Factors investigated in this assessment will reflect components of Social Information Processing (SIP) theory, a theoretical model that focuses on cognitive processes parents may experience that increase their abuse risk, although the model has not yet been comprehensively applied to abusive parents. In recent efforts to refine the SIP model, a more inclusive theoretical model will be considered in this study, with emotion, personal vulnerabilities, and resiliencies integrated with the SIP sociocognitive processes. This study will evaluate a selection of analog tasks?indirect assessment methods that utilize behavioral simulations or implicit means to assess a construct?with mothers substantiated for physical abuse. Analog tasks will be compared to traditional self-report approaches as well as more proximal parenting behavior and cognitions assessed via experience sampling methods (ESM). We capitalize on technological advances by using ESM with smartphones to assess daily parenting across four weeks. Findings will be relevant for both research and clinical purposes. Improved detection of particular elements of the theoretical model offer potential targets for prevention and intervention programs. Moreover, results from this project will provide initial insights into the feasibility of alternative methodologies to assess critical constructs related to PCA risk. With this initial project, subsequent research can then contrast substantiated perpetrators with comparison groups of varying risk status to determine the discriminant validity of analog tasks and later, whether such tools could ultimately be adapted to create computerized intervention and prevention strategies.

Public Health Relevance

Research has investigated potential factors that may heighten the risk of a parent engaging in physical child abuse--a major public health concern--but progress in the field remains compromised by methodological limitations. The current project will apply a strong theoretical model of risk factors using an innovative, multimethod assessment with mothers identified as physically abusive. New approaches to assess abuse risk could help us enhance future research designs as well as inform clinical strategies applicable for at-risk families.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Small Research Grants (R03)
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Biobehavioral and Behavioral Sciences Subcommittee (CHHD)
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Esposito, Layla E
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University of Alabama Birmingham
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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