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Why Parents Target a Specific Child for Abuse

by Darlene Barriere - Webmaster
(Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada)

<center>[Article originally posted October 2007 issue Barriere Bits E-zine]</center>

[Article originally posted October 2007 issue Barriere Bits E-zine]

Research into target-child selection, a term that is sometimes used to describe incidences where a parent singles out one child for abuse, is extremely limited. This is due partly to the fact that child abuse continues to be under-reported, and partly because target-child selection is often unidentified even though it may be present.


Some researchers attribute this targeting to stress levels, and often times, substance abuse. Others cite a history of abuse in the parent's childhood. While these attributions may explain child abuse in general, they do not adequately explain why a parent would single out a particular child.

There are professionals in the field who believe the answer to this targeting question lies in the misguided perception of one child: that abuse of siblings, for one reason or another, is simply not recognized by the child who believes that he or she was singled out. But growing evidence does not support this. More and more cases of child targeting are being discovered. Not through children or adults speaking out about their experiences; rather, through the investigations conducted by authorities after child abuse is reported.

One of the most infamous cases of a parent singling out a child for abuse is that of Dave Pelzer, author of several books, including A Child Called "It." Dave suffered years of abuse at the hands of his mother, and she repeatedly tried to kill him. He was 12 years old before he was rescued by teachers who finally reported the abuse to Social Services. At the time (1973), Dave's case was considered the worse case of child abuse in the history of California. None of his brothers were abused. And even if one wanted to argue that the other boys in the family had been abused, the physical evidence unmistakably showed that Dave was singled out.

There are many other cases. Take the recently publicized case of a 13-year-old Houston, Texas boy, who was so badly neglected that he currently weighs only 72 pounds. He is reportedly so small that he looks more like a 7-year-old than a teenager. His mother and stepfather are said to have kept him locked in an attic or in a closet. There is no doubt that they starved him. Investigators found none of the couple's five children had been in a school in two years, but only the 13-year-old boy had been abused. Old and new scars, healed burns and possible bite scars were found on the boy. Neighbours were aware of the boy's 4 siblings, but did not know the 13-year-old existed. While all of the children were neglected in some way, the teenage boy was singled out for torturous physical abuse and severe neglect that almost led to his death. At the time of this writing, the parents were still in jail.

We can only speculate why both his biological mother and stepfather targeted this boy. But even speculation has its basis in fact. So what are the facts?

We know that some children are more at risk for abuse than others. A child with poor cognitive skills and who exhibits behavioural problems is at significant risk for child abuse. Other risk factors for children and youth include their sexual orientation and a disability. Children who have a dependency for personal care for such disabilities as the inability to see, hear, move, communicate, dress, toilet or bathe themselves independently are more vulnerable to rough, careless or intrusive care, or neglect of their personal needs.

An American study found that parents are almost twice as likely to abuse a child with a disability as without a disability. Other studies reveal that people with disability are up to 5 times more likely to be abused than the general population.

By and large, society has no problem accepting that fathers are capable of harming their children. Men have had to deal with this unfounded societal bias since the beginning of time. There is a preconception that because boys are more physical and display anger more readily, they are somehow predisposed to violence against children when they become adults. But statistics reflect that women use physical abuse more than men. Society as a whole has difficulty wrapping their minds around this statistic. If society accepts that women, the caregivers and nurturers, are capable of physically harming their children, then it undermines the very core of our belief system.

Facts are facts: Both men and women are capable of maliciously and fatally abusing one or more of their children.

What do we know about abusive parents?

An abusive parent is a person who misuses his or her power. If parenting becomes overwhelming and support systems are insufficient, there is a much higher likelihood for becoming a child abuser. Some adults are more prone to becoming abusive due to their histories, their psychological make up, and their behavioural characteristics. Biological factors also enter into the equation. An abusive parent tends to have:
  • low self-esteem
  • poor impulse control
  • low frustration tolerance
  • inappropriate expression of anger
  • impaired parenting skills
  • inadequate coping skills
  • tendency for role reversal (i.e. child takes care of parent)
  • tendency to shift responsibility onto others
  • depression and other mental health problems
  • inadequate knowledge of child developmental stages
  • preconception that child's behaviour is stressful
  • anti-social behaviours (but not always)
  • self-expressed anger
  • feelings of inadequacy
  • feelings of incompetence
  • unrealistic expectations
There are a multitude of reasons a parent might target a specific child for abuse:
  • the parent abuses alcohol, drugs or other substances
  • post-partum depression
  • a history of child abuse in their own childhood
  • a history in their own childhood of inappropriate teachings of discipline for specific wrongdoings
  • social isolation
  • poor coping skills
  • a hatred of one gender over another
  • belief that a boy should be raised differently, in some cases, with more brutality and physically inappropriate discipline than a girl
  • the child is viewed as "difficult" or "won't listen" or "different"
    • hyperactive or inactive
    • fussy
    • difficult to feed
    • abnormal sleep patterns
    • excessive crying
    • difficult temperament
    • unresponsive to parents' efforts
    • child is seen as "unattractive" and/or "flawed" in a physical way, such as with disability or disfigurement
    • too passive
    • too strong-willed
    • failure to attach (bond) with the child
    • adopted
    • adolescents
  • the child is viewed as an adversary (a mother might see her daughter as competition for her husband's attention; a father might see in his daughter a trait he dislikes in his wife and view her as an enemy)
  • the child is viewed as being "spoiled" by the other parent – in these cases, the abusive parent justifies the maltreatment of that child as "making up" for the perceived lack of discipline imposed on that child
  • the parent dislikes certain personality traits and quirks that the child exhibits, especially if these traits are seen as mimicking someone the parent is either suspicious of or has a particular aversion to (an estranged or abusive spouse, for example)
  • the parent dislikes the fact that the child resembles in looks, someone the parent feels loathing toward (a spouse who has been unfaithful, for example)
  • the parent is jealous of the child's looks, mannerisms, character, ability to get attention, etc., then subsequently punishes the child for those perceived "misdeeds"
  • the child was a product of infidelity, incest, sexual assault, or an otherwise unwanted pregnancy
  • the pregnancy or delivery was difficult
  • child was born during period of extreme stress and crises
  • disappointment that the boy-child wasn't a girl, or the girl-child wasn't a boy
  • child is seen as "abnormal"
    • born significantly premature
    • small for gestational age
    • congenital problems
    • autistic
    • born with a disability or disfigurement
    • acute or chronic illnesses
It is important to note here that the above reasons and examples in no way provide an excuse for parents to abuse a child. They clearly denote mental health issues that must be addressed.

To summarize, parenting is never easy, and being a parent does not immunize a person from harming a child, even when that child is biologically theirs. When a child does not meet expectations, the parent may become more abusive toward that child. The parent may show greater irritation and annoyance to one specific child's moods and behaviours, and may be more controlling and hostile toward that child, and subsequently vent their frustrations on that child.

Parents who target one child for abuse have convoluted ideas about who and what that child is, as well as what is and isn't appropriate discipline and parental behaviour. Some children by virtue of who they are, what they look like, and the circumstances of their being are more vulnerable for abuse than other children. When these realities are combined, it is a recipe for malicious and sometimes fatal child abuse.

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