Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology



Physical Description

4, ix, 168 leaves 28 cm.


Social psychology, Child abuse




Currently, there exists no conclusive etiology of child abuse although there are two major and contrasting theories which attempt to impart a systematic interpretation to the data. The purpose of this study was to determine what are the significant factors in child abuse and to what extent the respective theories render a coherent and comprehensive explanation of these factors. This study aggregated the data on the demographic, social, economic, and psychological features of the child abuse victim and perpetrator. Each study was analyzed according to a methodology of review which considered the problems involved in eliciting meaningful data from a group of studies grounded on different assumptions and conducted according to disparate research designs. The studies were compared and contrasted to determine what factors were significantly related to child abuse. Thereafter, both major theories of child abuse were tested against the findings of the literature review to determine to what extent the respective theories successfully predicted and related significant factors in child abuse. The review of the literature clearly established a demographic profile of the child abuse victim and his family. The abused child is usually very young, typically below the age of three. Neither race nor gender are specifically related to the age of the victim. Abusing families tend to have more than the average number of children, but usually select only one child - frequently, the eldest or the youngest - as the target for abuse. The child is likely to have been born prematurely and to have had more than the usual number of serious physical illnesses or disabilities throughout his life. In addition, a significant number of abused children display intellectual, social, and psychological dysfunction which may have resulted from injuries sustained from previous abuse. Most injuries stemming from child abuse fall into the general category of superficial bruises and welts although compared with accidental childhood injuries, there is a higher frequency of fractures and head injuries. The pattern that emerges from the somewhat limited data is that abused children are unusually impaired in intellectual, social, and psychological functioning. Nearly all child abuse is committed by parental figures most of whom are the natural mothers and fathers of abused children. Most abusing parents are around twenty-five years old reflecting the fact that the majority of abuse victims are infants and younger children. Mothers are the most frequent child abusers. Although only one parent actually attacks the abuse victim, generally speaking, the other parent is overtly, or at least covertly involved in abusing the child. Abusing parents are characterized by a history of anti-social behavior and psychological problems. A general atmosphere of instability and disruption surrounds the child abusing family indicated by frequent discord among married parents, as well as separations and divorces. On all measures of socioeconomic status, child abusing families have low achievement and face the stresses of poverty and its associated conditions. However, neither race nor socioeconomic status distinguish the abusing family when compared with the social, racial, and economic groups to which they belong. Abusing families are distinguished by their transience and inability to maintain social contact with the community or affiliation with social organizations. Neither a sociocultural or a psychodynamic theory of child abuse effectively relates and explains all the significant findings of the literature review. While the former predicts the several environmental factors significantly related to child abuse and the latter explains the significant findings associated with the perpetrator, neither theory provides an explanation of the role of the child abuse victim. This review suggests that an alternative theoretical framework which incorporates environmental factors and relates significant factors about the child abuse victim and perpetrator will produce the most comprehensive explanation of child abuse.


Portland State University. Dept. of Psychology.

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