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‘Don’t just lump together child abuse and child neglect’

Child abuse and child neglect are often seen as one and the same problem. But it can be useful to separate the two to gain more insight into the characteristics of the two phenomena. This is what pedagogical scientist Renate Buisman shows in her dissertation. PhD defence on 28 May.

Every year countless numbers of children fall victim to some form of maltreatment. According to the latest count (in 2017), in the Netherlands alone this was between 90,000 and 127,000 children up to the age of 18. And the numbers do not seem to have decreased since. Maltreatment can mean, on the one hand, physical or emotional abuse, such as hitting and swearing, and, on the other, physical and emotional neglect: if the parent is unable to care properly for the child, for instance.

Two distinct phenomena

Buisman’s research shows that it can be useful to study abuse and neglect as two separate phenomena. She found that these two subtypes of child maltreatment have a different effect on how former victims treat their children later in life.

Buisman discovered, for instance, that victims of child abuse are significantly more likely to be negative with their children. Moreover, the more they have been abused as a child, the more negative their parenting is. She also found ‘intergenerational transmission’ of child abuse: victims are significantly more likely to become perpetrators themselves later in life.

Victims of neglect not more negative

In contrast, Buisman found that victims of neglect are not more negative with their offspring later in life. What she did discover was that the autonomous nervous system of these parents is more likely to be hyperreactive in a resting state and potentially stressful parenting situations. This was apparent from an increased heart rate and decreased heart rate variability. This could mean that the regulation of the autonomous nervous system is more likely to be disrupted in people who have experienced neglect in their childhood. Here too, Buisman found a link between being a victim and a perpetrator of neglect, but this appeared to be less strong than with abuse.

Child maltreatment and the corona crisis

One of Renate Buisman’s supervisors is Lenneke Alink, Professor of Forensic Child and Family Studies and authority in the area of research into child maltreatment. In a recent interview on our website, she talked about the effect of the corona crisis on children in unsafe home environments. A crisis such as this will mainly have a negative effect on families where other things are at play, such as financial worries, parents who have separated […] or parents who themselves have psychiatric problems.’

Together with a multidisciplinary team of researchers, Buisman asked 395 test participants from 63 multi-generation families to do several tasks and experiments. The participants performed the tasks twice: once with the family that they had grown up in and once with the family that they had formed as an adult. This enabled Buisman to research not only how the parents interacted with their children, but also whether and to what extent parenting styles are transmitted to the next generations.

Jenga tower

The test participants were tested in different ways. Buisman measured how the parents responded to baby noises, asked the parents and children to try to resolve a difference of opinion and got them to build a Jenga tower so that she could research the level of cohesion within the family. Buisman studied the atmosphere and level of collaboration between the family members and also looked at physical expressions such as heart rate and breathing.

‘It might be possible to use this research to reduce the negative effects of abuse and neglect,’ says Buisman. ‘This could mean an app that measures the heart rate of people who experienced neglect as a child. In a stressful situation, they would then receive a notification saying that their breathing is becoming more rapid and their heart rate and muscle tension is increasing. By recognising these signals and responding to them, you can restore the body’s equilibrium more rapidly.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland

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