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Why Do Parents Physically Abuse Their Children

What Is Child Abuse?

Abuse from parents can take many forms. There are times when it is obvious, and other times, it is difficult to detect.

The five types of child abuse are physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and medical neglect.​1​

Physical abuse is any nonaccidental injury and physical harm inflicted on a child.

Mental abuse is psychological maltreatment that conveys to a child that they are worthless, flawed, unwanted, and unworthy of attention and love. Psychological abuse includes constant criticism, verbal abuse, and parental rejection.

Sexual abuse is involving a child in sexual activity.

Neglect occurs when a caretaker fails to meet a child’s basic needs, resulting in actual or potential harm. Emotional neglect is one of the subtler forms of abuse, where a child’s emotional needs are ignored. It is the most common type of child abuse.

Medical neglect is a type of abuse that happens when treatment recommendations made for a child are not followed, leading to actual or potential harm.

brother hugs little girl while father hits mother in the shadow

Why do parents physically abuse their children?

Researchers have discovered that despite the temptation to summarize child abuse as being caused by bad parents, several factors are at play.

Essentially, abuse occurs when risk factors outweigh protective factors.​2​

Intent attribution

Abusive parents tend to attribute the cause of their children’s negative behavior to the children’s temperament and their negative intent. They believe their children misbehave intentionally to annoy, frustrate, or disobey them deliberately.​3​

The assumption that the behavior results from intentional hostile intent can lead to parents’ anger and aggression.

Unrealistic expectations

Parents at high risk of abusing their children often report more difficult behaviors in their children. 

However, researchers have found that the children typically behave less negatively or non-compliant than other children.

The abusive parents have unrealistic expectations of their children who show developmentally appropriate behavior.​4​

Parents ‘ frustration could lead to overreactions when a child deviates from expected behaviors.

Rigid thinking

Abusive parents are usually rigid and inflexible in their thinking.

They commonly resort to coercive responses when faced with unexpected behavior in their children.​5​

Overreactive to emotions

Parents who use coercive disciplinary strategies, such as physical punishment, tend to be over-sensitive to their children’s emotions.

They can be overreactive even when the child is not yet defiant or resistant.

For example, abusers have greater physiologic responses to children’s crying.​6​

Disciplinary belief

Those who abuse children are more likely to use coercive disciplinary methods and believe that harsh punishment is the only way to discipline.​7​

Self-esteem and self-efficacy

Parents at risk of abuse toward children tend to have low self-esteem and self-efficacy (believing they have effective parenting techniques). They tend to experience higher stress levels, depression, self-blame, and social isolation.​8​

Lack of skills

Parents’ lack of skills also contributes to the possibility of abuse.

  • Lower ability to inhibit aggression
  • Lack of coping skills to manage stress
  • Less parenting skills to resolve conflict situations

Intergenerational transmission of childhood abuse

Parents with a history of abuse in childhood are at increased risk for engaging in abusive parenting.​9​

Child characteristics

Some studies have found that child abuse results from immediate environmental stress, parent’s personality traits, and the child’s characteristics that make them vulnerable to scapegoating.

Children with the following characteristics are more prone to be abused.​10​

  • Prematurity (born preterm)
  • Physical disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Difficult temperament
  • Single parenthood
  • Parents’ perceptions of the child as “different”

Parental burnout

Studies show that parents experiencing parental burnout are more likely to engage in abusive behavior toward their children.​11​

These parents tend to lack the resources to handle the stressful demands of parenting.

Environmental risk factors

  • Greater number of children in the household
  • Poverty​12​
  • Negative interactions at home outnumber positive exchanges 
  • Lack of social support
  • Internalized cultural influences that condone such parenting practice​13​

Effects Of Abuse – Statistics

In 2003, there were 906,000 substantiated cases of child maltreatment in the United States (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

Victims of child maltreatment will suffer both short- and long-term consequences of abuse.

Abused children are more likely to suffer from attachment difficulties, cognitive impairment, developmental delays, emotion dysregulation, poor academic performance, behavioral issues, delinquency, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorder, depression, phobia, self-harming behavior, suicidal attempts, and substance abuse.

Researchers have found that continuous abuse reduces memory, learning, and emotional regulation regions of the brain in adults.​14​

The economic burden of child maltreatment is also substantial.

Non-fatal child abuse costs, on average, $210,012 in 2010 dollars per victim. A child abuse death costs approximately $1,272,900, including 1,258,800 in lost productivity.

Approximately $585 billion is estimated to be the childhood traumatic experience’s total burden in the United States.​15​

Protective Factors

Parents at high risk of abusing their children but do not are more likely to possess the following protective factors.

Long-term, intimate, and stable relationship

Those who break the cycle of maltreatment are more likely to have a stable, intimate relationship for a long time and have a secure home to raise their children.​16​

Emotional support

Additionally, they perceive having higher levels of social and emotional support, including psychotherapy.​17​

Stress, anxiety, and depression are less prevalent among high-risk parents who perceive high social support levels.

Often, abusive families isolate themselves from the community, limiting their access to emotional and financial support. As a result, they have less exposure to alternative parenting methods to deal with their challenges.

Financial solvency

In many families, money-related issues are the leading source of stress. 

Financially stable parents tend to have less stress in everyday life and are likely to be able to break the cycle successfully.​18​

Also See: How To Parent Differently Than Your Parents

How To Break The Cycle

Learning how to parent in an entirely new way can be challenging. 

Some parents don’t know where to start. Others feel like they have tried everything, and nothing works.

If you were abused in childhood and want to parent your children differently, here are the steps to take.

Take responsibility

The first step is acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility for changing the abusive behavior. This requires a great deal of courage. For that, I commend you.

Seek therapy if possible

If you can afford a counselor, seek their assistance and start healing. There is nothing to be ashamed of. People who reach out for help are only brave.

An experienced therapist can help you deal with unresolved feelings, heal childhood emotional scars, provide emotional support, and learn coping skills.

A family therapist can also guide you through relationship issues.

Elicit social help

Get out to reconnect with your friends. Support from friends and family can help you overcome challenges.

Friends can provide a listening ear, offer advice, or help take your mind off whatever is causing you distress. 

If you don’t have many friends, try joining a club or activity group to meet new people.

Learn new parenting strategies

To handle your child’s behavioral problem differently, take parenting classes or learn about positive parenting skills.

Adopt a different mindset

The negative attribution of misbehavior, unrealistic expectations, and rigid beliefs about parenting prevent many parents from adopting or learning new parenting methods.

Open-mindedness and psychological flexibility are key to changing the pattern of behavior and breaking the abusive trauma cycle.


Meditation helps you calm your nervous system and focus on being present. It is a great way to relax and manage anger.​19​

Final Thoughts on Child Abuse

The cycle of abuse can be broken. But you must commit to taking the necessary steps. 

It may take a lot of work, but if you put your mind to it, you, too, can raise healthy children and have a happy family.

Believe in yourself, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help.


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    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *