Science & Technology

The ups and downs of child-parent relationships

The first bond a baby forms in life is with its parents. For that reason, the impacts of parenting on childhood development—both positive and negative—come as no surprise.

Findings from one of the largest and  most recent studies on childhood maltreatment in Canada indicate that 13 per cent of children and youth served by the Ontario child welfare system exhibited aggression; a figure which remains significantly higher than the estimated population values of one to four per cent. In addition, six per cent of maltreated adolescents were involved in the youth justice system. Neglect by parents, the study shows, may factor into youth aggression and criminal behaviour.

Five forms of abuse were investigated in children for whom child protection agencies had been called: Physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment, and intimate partner violence.

“The children who are showing aggressive behaviour are struggling in a lot of domains,” Melissa Van Wert, a post doctoral fellow from McGill University and manager of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, said.

Looking below the surface level, symptoms of abuse are quite multifaceted.

“While aggressive behaviour is the most overt result of abuse, internalizing behaviours and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are also frequent occurrences,” Van Wert said. “They might even look different than normal children due to the maltreatment they have faced.”

Abuse can have varying effects, depending on its duration and the developmental stage of the child.

Many of the teenagers in this position had previously been investigated for maltreatment, specifically noting violence in early childhood and neglect in their teenage years. They lacked community, extended family support, and likely lived in poverty.

Vilifying abusive parents is nonetheless an easy and common act, despite the complex layers that may exist behind that parental behavior.

“It is hard to take care of a […] child, especially in cases of extreme poverty and chaotic, high-stress environments,” Van Wert said.

Neglect, in the context of this study, means that parents could not take care of their children, especially without community support—not that they were bad parents. Essential services that affect development, such as child care and health care, can be inaccessible to families in need, despite social welfare systems in Canada.

Van Wert also pointed out the need for increased accessibility and quality in preventative mental health services, family support services, and community access points for future families.

Family environments affect the development of a child positively as well; a loving, nurturing environment is highly beneficial to child development.

“There is certainly a spectrum of parenting behaviours and quality,” Van Wert said.

During adolescent development, many positive parenting strategies exist, including a positive attachment relationship with an infant, and exposing kids to early childhood learning opportunities.

In teenage years, monitoring behaviour is important—as pointed out by the effects of neglect shown in the study—but it should be done without extreme harshness, according to Van Wert. Considering parenting in its context is critical, as it does not happen in a vacuum. Healthy child development requires both community and parental support.

Developing comprehensive support for families is the next step in this area of research. Often, children at risk are already involved in child protection and their situation has to be addressed from a different angle.

“My research now is from the education perspective,” Van Wert said. “Primary health care is another important aspect of early preventative systems.”

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