Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Psychological Aggression by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, and Severity

Article excerpt

This article describes the prevalence of psychological aggression in a nationally representative sample of 991 parents. By child-age 2, 90% reported using one or more forms of psychological aggression during the previous 12 months and 98% by age 5. From ages 6 to 17, the rates continued in the 90% range. The rate of severe psychological aggression was lower: 10%-20% for toddlers and about 50% for teenagers. Prevalence rates greater than 90% and the absence of differences according to child or family characteristics suggests that psychological aggression is a near universal disciplinary tactic of American parents. Finally, this article discusses the implications of the findings for the conceptualization of psychological "abuse," and for understanding the origins of the high level of psychological aggression between intimate partners.

Key Words: abuse, children, gender, parents, psychological aggression.

Acts of psychological aggression by parents, such as angry shouting and cursing and calling a child a dummy or a slob, are a perennial focus of novelists. But in contrast to the prevalence of psychological aggression in the daily lives of fictional families, social scientists treat psychological aggression as something that occurs in pathological families rather than in an everyday part of interaction in typical families. The failure to perceive and attend to psychological aggression in nonclinical general population families is similar to the previous failure to attend to physical aggression in nonclinical families. Both physical and psychological aggression is common in typical families (Gelles & Cornell, 1990; Straus & Gelles, 1990). Physical aggression by parents toward children under the euphemism of spanking is normative, is expected "when necessary," and is experienced by over 94% of American toddlers; it occurs an average of three times a week (Giles-Sims, Straus, & Sugarman, 1995; Straus & Stewart, 1999).

Psychological aggression by parents as a mode of discipline does not have the same culturally approved and expected status as does physical aggression in the form of corporal punishment, but neither is it beyond the pale of acceptability unless it is chronic and severe. Previous research (Solomon & Serres, 1999; Vissing, Straus, Gelles, & Harrop, 1991) suggests that verbal attacks on children, like physical attacks, are so prevalent as to be just about universal. Despite this near universality, psychological aggression by parents has not been conceptualized and investigated as a standard part of the family system. Rather, it is the focus of attention only if it is chronic and severe enough to be conceptualized as a form of deviance and investigated by scholars concerned with "child abuse" rather than by those concerned with normal families.

We suggest that the relegation of this almost universal experience of childhood to the domain of "child abuse" occurs largely because there are implicit cultural norms that direct us to ignore psychological aggression unless it passes a certain threshold of chronicity and severity. These norms spill over from the personal lives of scholars to influence the focus of their theoretical and empirical research. One reason these cultural beliefs can prevail is the lack of scientific information on the actual prevalence and chronicity of psychological aggression by parents. The purpose of this article is to provide that information.

Regardless of whether tolerating a certain level of psychological aggression by parents is part of the cultural norms of American society, an understanding of the families and of childhood can benefit from information about the extent to which parents use this mode of discipline with children of different ages. This study provides information on the epidemiology of psychological aggression by a nationally representative sample of American parents. We present data on the prevalence of psychological aggression for each year of life from birth to age 17 and also for age categories related to children's cognitive and social development. …

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