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Empowering Parents Reduces Abuse

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Each year in the United States, some 600,000 children are abused and neglected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many of these children will grow up to have poorer health, lower incomes, and worse jobs than their peers who were not abused and neglected. 


Training parents to interpret childrearing challenges as problems they can solve, rather than as evidence that they or their children are bad people, reduces child abuse.


Social psychologist Daphne Bugental and her colleagues used the Family Stress Checklist to identify parents at risk of abusing their newborn child. Many of these parents were either single mothers or had been victims of child abuse themselves.

The researchers then randomly assigned 73 families to 1 of 3 conditions. In the home visit condition, families received an average of 17 visits from trained counselors over the course of their newborn’s first year of life. During these visits, counselors helped mothers set goals for their families, acquire parenting skills, and get health care and other services.

In the cognitive training condition, families received the same home visits plus training to develop more constructive explanations for and solutions to their parenting problems. These new ways of thinking prevented mothers from blaming themselves or their child, and instead focused their attention on solving the problem at hand. Rather than telling parents what to do, counselors helped parents generate solutions to their own problems.

For instance, a counselor might ask the mother of an inconsolable infant, "Why do you think your baby is crying?" and then work with the parent to help her understand that her infant is crying not because he is a spiteful tyrant, nor because she is a bad parent, but because his formula is upsetting his stomach. The counselor would then ask the mother to brainstorm solutions to this more manageable and less emotionally loaded problem, such as changing the child’s formula. During the next visit, the counselor would inquire about the success of the new formula, and then help the parents interpret and solve new problems.

In the control condition, parents learned about community resources for their families but did not receive any home visits.

The researchers found that fewer parents in the cognitive training condition (4%) physically abused their children than did parents in the home visit condition (23%) or the control condition (26%). In other words, home visits plus cognitive training reduced abuse by 22 percentage points.

The intervention was especially powerful for families with premature or medically fragile children, whom studies show are at higher risk for abuse. While 42% of parents with high-risk children in the control and home visit conditions abused their infants, only 7% of parents in the cognitive training condition used harsh parenting tactics.

Why This Works

Parents who commit child abuse often perceive themselves as powerless victims and their children as intentionally malicious. Training parents to make less personal cognitive appraisals for their childrearing challenges helps them feel more in control and view their children more positively.

When This Works Best

Counselors did not tell parents how to solve their problems with their babies. Instead, they encouraged parents to come up with their own explanations and solutions while gently guiding them away from placing blame. This gradual and subtle approach works best in families where abuse is not yet a problem. In families where abuse is already taking place, a more immediate and direct approach may be necessary. 

Original Study

Bugental, D. B., Ellerson, P. C., Lin, E. K., Rainey, B., Kokotovic, A., & O'Hara, N. (2002). A cognitive approach to child abuse prevention. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(3), 243-258.

See Also

Bugental, D. B., & Schwartz, A. (2009). A cognitive approach to child mistreatment prevention among medically at-risk infants. Developmental Psychology, 45(1), 284-288.

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