Physical aggression toward children pervades this country as evidenced by alarming child abuse statistics and widespread use of physical discipline, impacting the short-term and long-term emotional and physical welfare of children. The principal goal of the Following First Families (Triple F) project is to identify risk factors predictive of parent-child aggression (PCA) using a theoretically-grounded model. This longitudinal research study examines how attitudes and behaviors of both mothers and fathers during pregnancy predict later abusive attitudes and behavior toward their infants. The theoretical foundation for this project is Social Information Processing (SIP) theory, focusing on the cognitive processes parents potentially experience that increase their risk to engage in PCA. Based on this model, the project aims to pinpoint in a distinctively rigorous fashion the most powerful predictors of PCA that are also potentially therapeutically modifiable to enhance prevention. Although early in-home PCA prevention has been previously attempted with at-risk groups, such efforts have been met with limited success. Such disappointing results may in part reflect that many programs have not been designed based on theoretically grounded and methodologically rigorous selection and assessment of behavioral and cognitive risk factors. The Triple F project also actively engages biological fathers who are typically overlooked in research despite repeated calls to include both parents. A broad community sample of parents will be recruited, intended to represent the range of parents for whom prevention would be meaningful;half of this sample, however, will include families with evident sociodemographic disadvantages that represent a significantly higher PCA risk in order to gauge whether factors identified during pregnancy are more readily triggered to become abusive in certain groups. The project aims to pinpoint what beliefs young mothers and fathers have that may shift upon having children;for some parents, at-risk beliefs may be solidified as their babies are experienced as challenging, whereas for others, their beliefs may buffer them from becoming abusive despite being considered "at-risk." Such differential trajectories may finally explain why not all those expected to be at-risk become abusive toward their children whereas others presumed to be low-risk surprisingly become abusive. Findings from this study will provide direction for both research and clinical purposes, wherein particular components of the SIP model will emerge as most relevant for inclusion in prevention. The research design involves a rigorous, innovative multimethod approach, combining observational coding and analog tasks with traditional self-report measures to predict PCA risk. Two hundred primiparous mothers will be recruited as well as 160 fathers. Data will first be collected during the last trimester of pregnancy and both parents will be re-assessed when the child is 6 months and 18 months old. Hence, this project can advance the field on both theoretical and practical grounds, employing powerful design strategies to pinpoint which factors to monitor prospectively as families evolve across time.

Public Health Relevance

Although research has considered a number of important factors that may increase the risk of a parent engaging in child physical abuse or administering harsh physical discipline, the field has been compromised by inadequately supported approaches in this vital effort. This project will investigate major risk factors in parent- child aggression using innovative strategies that tap theoretically important factors in increasing the risk of physical aggression toward children, a major public health problem. We propose to examine how attitudes and behaviors of both mothers and fathers during pregnancy predict later abusive attitudes and behavior toward their infants.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) (R15)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-RPHB-L (90))
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Maholmes, Valerie
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University of North Carolina Greensboro
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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