The paucity of attention paid to adolescent physical abuse towards mothers is indicated by the sparse literature on the topic. Clearly, there is an urgent need to conduct research into this aspect of family life. A research study will, therefore, be designed to explore the perspectives of mothers who experience adolescent physical abuse and to determine the direction for developing effective policies and services to address the needs of mothers and young people.
Reviewing the literature--
Physical abuse within the family context is of concern as it exists within all cultures, family backgrounds, and socio-economic situations (Ministry of Social Development, 2002).
The family physical abuse literature to date has primarily focused on intimate partner abuse and child abuse. Although now gaining greater attention, the issue of adolescent physical abuse towards their mothers has been a neglected area (Agnew & Huguley, 1989; Bobic, 2004; Cottrell & Monk, 2004; Eckstein, 2004; Peek, Fischer, & Kidwell, 1985). In New Zealand the available information about adolescent physical abuse towards mothers comes from articles published in the popular press (Aldridge, 1995; Stickley, 1998) and anecdotal evidence from organizations such as Tough Love, the police, and community intervention and prevention services that work with people affected by physical abuse.
The lack of research literature on adolescent physical abuse towards mothers is of concern as noted in recent reports, such as Te Rito: New Zealand Family Physical abuse Prevention Strategy (Ministry of Social Development, 2002), Beyond Zero Tolerance: Key issues and future directions for family physical abuse work in New Zealand (Fanslow, 2005) and An Agenda for Family Physical abuse Research (New Zealand Family Physical abuse Clearinghouse, 2006). No direct research on the topic appears to have been undertaken in New Zealand. More extensive information and additional literature on physical abuse towards mothers, however, is available from overseas sources; some is based on data from surveys conducted in the United States, other information comes from the Canadian National Clearinghouse on Family Physical abuse (Agnew & Huguley, 1989; Brezina, 1999; Cornell & Gelles, 1982; Cottrell, 2001, 2003; Cottrell & Monk, 2004; Peek et al., 1985; Ulman & Strauss, 2003). Several articles from Australia also address the topic (Bobic, 2002, 2004; Gallagher, 2004a, 2004b).
The prevalence of adolescent physical abuse towards mothers is difficult to establish. Estimates of incidence within the available literature vary from 5-18% of families experiencing this phenomenon. A small number of studies from overseas have examined survey data based on quantitative measures; however, much of this information is ten to thirty years old (Cottrell & Monk, 2004; Eckstein, 2004). The available statistics generally focus on the use of physical abuse by children or adolescents towards their mothers (Agnew & Huguley, 1989; Bobic, 2004; Eckstein, 2004; Peek et al., 1985). The type of physical abuse is usually categorized as “hitting” (Agnew & Huguley, 1989; Peek et al., 1985), although verbal and emotional abuse may also be included (Eckstein, 2004). However, other developmentally relevant behaviors, more commonly found in the youth literature, for example, financial abuse and damage to property, are largely neglected.
Explanations regarding the cause and continuation of adolescent physical abuse towards mothers, as well as information about the most effective ways of assisting mothers, are limited (Bobic, 2004). Cottrell (2001) suggests there is no single and definitive explanation for physical abuse towards mothers. Rather, a range of multifaceted and interconnected dynamics contributes to this behavior. These dynamics may include biological, psychological and social factors, as well as those related to youth culture (Martin, 2002), and risk factors linked with youth offending (McLaren, 2000, 2002). In line with current information regarding interpersonal physical abuse, both male and female youth participate in all forms of physical abuse towards mothers (Cottrell, 2003), while women are most likely to be at risk of becoming targets of the physical abuse (Agnew & Huguley, 1989).
The link between growing up in the context of family physical abuse and the continuation of violent behavior onto the next generation is becoming increasingly highlighted in current family physical abuse discourse. There is also evidence to suggest that where there is physical abuse between mothers, and/or mothers are violent towards a young person, there is greater risk of the young person becoming violent towards his or her parent (Bobic, 2004; Ulman & Strauss, 2003). Furthermore, adolescents who abuse their mothers often abuse their siblings as well (Harbin & Madden, 1979; Heide as cited in Eckstein, 2004). However, more extensive studies are needed to explore the issue further and to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the development of violent behavior in some adolescents.
As with other types of interpersonal physical abuse and abuse, it is likely that adolescent physical abuse towards mothers is more widespread than the available literature and studies suggests. Under reporting is likely to be influenced by the nature of the relationship between the young person and their mothers. Internal factors such as parental shame and fear of blame and external factors such as community judgment of their capacity to parent (Bobic, 2004) may also contribute to mothers denying or minimizing their experiences and maintaining secrecy (Agnew & Huguley, 1989). Cottrell and Monk (2004) suggest that reluctance to disclose is likely to be exacerbated by the limited access to means of intervention. Social service agencies increasingly recognize the prevalence of this type of physical abuse. However, research that could provide practice models of how to respond to this type of physical abuse is also lacking (Cottrell, 2001).
There is also scant information about whether adolescent physical abuse towards mothers relates more to family physical abuse or to youth physical abuse in general. Theoretical approaches to family physical abuse have centered on adult-initiated physical abuse and may be limited in their application to adolescent-initiated physical abuse (Cottrell & Monk, 2004; Peek et al., 1985). Research and theoretical frameworks relating to youth physical abuse may address these limitations. As integrating frameworks may be useful in addressing adolescent physical abuse towards mothers (Bobic, 2004; Cottrell & Monk, 2004), by combining knowledge from the fields of family physical abuse and youth physical abuse we may be able to more effectively expand our understanding of the phenomenon.
The New Zealand Family Physical abuse Clearinghouse has identified adolescent physical abuse against mothers as a significant gap in research on all forms of family physical abuse (NZFVCH, 2006). The level of youth physical abuse within our communities is also of concern. Where one issue ends and another begins may not be clear-cut. However, what is clear is the need for New Zealand-based research to explore the phenomenon of adolescent violent behavior within the context of the family. The literature review that is reported upon here provides the basis for the development of a research proposal that will contribute to the filling of this gap.
The proposed study will be designed to explore mothers’ experiences of physical abuse perpetrated by adolescents (aged 14 to 17 years) in their care. Young people aged 14 years and over are held accountable for offending under New Zealand legislation and are at an age at which intervention through statutory agencies may be required. Mothers from varying family configurations will be invited to take part in the research. This will include representation from Pakeha, Maori, Pacific, and Asian populations. Attention to ethnic diversity will be important as a necessary step towards meeting the needs of all families who experience adolescent physical abuse towards mothers. Ethical considerations will also be important, particularly those concerning cultural issues (Anae, Coxon, Mara, Wendt-Samu, & Finau, 2001; Ruwhiu, 2001; Tolich, 2002) and safety issues (Ellsberg, Heise, Pena, Agurto, & Winkvist, 2001).
The research will take a mixed method approach where both quantitative and qualitative data are sought. The option of using this approach in a longitudinal study will also be considered. Data collection will focus on experiences of all types of physical abuse, including physical abuse, psychological, emotional and financial abuse, and damage to property and material goods.
Adolescent physical abuse towards mothers is a complex area. There is little evidence-based information that can assist families or research that can support practitioners working with families who are experiencing this type of physical abuse. This review of the literature is an initial step towards developing a study that can attend to the need for New Zealand-based research on adolescent physical abuse towards mothers and contribute to building theory about this type of interpersonal physical abuse. It is hoped that it will also stimulate discussion about how the phenomenon might be addressed.
Yvonne Crichton-Hill and Nikki Evans are members of the team at Te Awatea Physical abuse Research Centre and academics at the School of Social Work and Human Services, University of Canterbury. Their research interests are in the fields of family physical abuse and youth physical abuse. Letitia Meadows is a BSW graduate and has a University of Canterbury Doctoral Scholarship to continue her studies as a PhD candidate with the School of Social Work and Human Services.
This report of the preliminary research study, funded by a University of Canterbury, College of Arts Research Grant, was first published in Te Awatea Review, 4(2), December 2006.
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