‘Analyse the contribution of Ecological theory to our understanding of typical and atypical child development, and discuss this model in relation to the factors and possible interventions for child abuse’
‘The importance of insight regarding the parent/child bond has always been a component of social services custom, but the significance has not always been indentified of the interaction that the environment plays on a parents ability to act in their child’s best interests’ (Department of Health, 1999). A significant breakthrough in the knowledge of child abuse appears to have emerged through the application of an ecological model of child maltreatment, ‘The ecological paradigm is currently the most comprehensive model we have for understanding child abuse’ (Gallagher 2001; 76). Such a perspective has generally been derived from theory based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) pioneering work, in which he defines to which ‘The ecology of human development involves…the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings…this process is affected by relations between these settings and by the larger contexts in which these settings are embedded’. (Sidebotham, 2001; 105).
The importance of an ecological standpoint in the perception of abuse is, firstly, that it widens the boundaries of the unfavourable effects of maltreatment on children beyond just the parent-child relationship to consider the familial and social context in which such abuse occurs. Second, the ecological model is transactional; in the sense that it acknowledges the individual and the immediate and wider influences as actively interacting with each other. However, it should be noted that this ideology holds some limitations in the sense that it would not seem to account very well for child sexual abuse. Any pairing together of juxtapositions forms of behaviour ‘as occurs with ‘child abuse’ or ‘child maltreatment’, is bound to result in some loss of specificity…It would be foolish to think that ecological models are the final word on child abuse…there is not single solution to abuse’ (Gallagher 2001; 77).
Specific hazardous factors contribute to parents abusing their children. Although maltreatment does not often occur without numerable of these factors interacting in the same household simultaneously. Firstly, the risk of abuse increases in any household exposed to significant stress, regardless if this stress arises from unemployment, poverty, neighbourhood violence, a lack of social support, or an especially demanding infant (CDC, 2006). Bronfenbrenner’s predominant layer, or microsystem, refers to the collaborations that occur within the child’s immediate environment. The child’s own genetic and social characteristics affect the habits, behaviour and patience of their peers, For example, a temperamentally tiresome infant could disaffect their parents or even create friction between them that may be sufficient to damage their marital relationship (Belsky & Crnic, 1995). Also, the relationship between any two individuals in the microsystem is likely to be influenced by the introduction of a child. Fathers, for example, clearly influence mother-infant interactions, happily married mothers who have close supportive relationships with their husbands tend to interact much more patiently and sensitively with their infants than mothers who experience marital tension, little support from their spouses, or feel that they are raising their children on their own (Cox et al, 1992).
In regards to the emphasis on family, the notion to which a parent regards their competence and rates the performance of their parenting role is also a relevant matter. Parenting competence has been noted as problematic among abusive parents (Marsh & Johnston, 1990) and linked with increased abuse possibility. Whilst acknowledging that improvement of parenting capacity is an important objective ‘one must be cautious in concluding that improved competency in parenting directly results in a reduction in child maltreatment as observations on interactions based under experimental conditions rarely reflect in daily life’ (Gallagher,2001;248).
Direct exposure to abuse can have a dangerous impact as abused children tend to function less adaptively than their non-abused peers in many areas (Cicchetti, Rogosch, 1993). According to Hipwell et al (2008) Children in a caring and loving environment feel more secure in their immediate surrounds in regard to the microsystem, they develop greater self-confidence, are altruistic and show higher signs of being empathetic. These children are also shown to have larger IQ’s throughout their schooling life, and show lower levels of anger and delinquent behaviour. As Bronfenbrenners ecological model would present, higher degrees of affection can even buffer a child against the negative implications of otherwise precarious environments (Bartley & Fonagy, 2008). Several studies of children and teens growing up in poor, dangerous neighbourhoods show that the single ingredient that most clearly distinguishes the lives of those who do not become delinquent from those who do is a high level of maternal love (McCdord, 1982).
The Mesosystem is the connections or interrelationship among such microsystems as homes, schools, and peer groups. Bronfenbrenner argues that development will be increased by supportive and strong connections between Microsystems. For example, children who have instigated attached and secure relationships with parents have a tendency to be accepted by others and to have close, supportive peers during their development (Perry, 1999). According to McAdoo (1996) a child’s competence to learn in a schooling environment is dependent upon the quality of the teaching provided and also the degree to which their parents place value upon education capital and how they interact with the teacher and vice-versa. However, this can also impact negatively at this level as when deviant peer groups or friends of the child devalue scholastics, they will tend to undermine that child’s school performance in spite of teacher and parents best efforts.
Numerable research has revealed that exposure to abuse had a severe negative impact upon a child’s academic functioning. Schwab-Stone et al (1995) concluded that as the consistency of maltreatment increased this had a direct negative correlation with academic performance. Likewise, Bowen (1999) found in a sample of over 2000 high school students that exposure to community and school violence put limitations on school attendance, behaviour and results. Warner and Weist (1999) revealed that children from low income families who are witnesses to household and neighbourhood violence demonstrated atypical symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression. The symptoms continue upon the latter to include atypical externalising behaviours such as anger, inability to form relationships and a decline in academic performance.
‘Surviving on a low income in a bad neighbourhood does not make it impossible to be the caring, affectionate parent of healthy, sociable children. But it does, undeniably, make it more difficult’ (Utting, 1995, p. 40). Children from low-income households may display more behavioural troubles than their better-off peers. However, according to Gorman-Smith (1998) family factors, including parenting practices do not predict children’s exposure to violence. He suggests that other community factors rather than their household income will influence and operate on children and those family factors are not powerful enough to mediate or moderate their effects. Such studies have often found there to be an important correlation between communities in which citizens have described a high level of community cohesions and children safety, with an increase in child abuse being linked with a negative sense of community identity.
Self-care has the most negative effects for children in low-income neighbourhoods with high crime rates (Marshall et al, 1997). Children who begin self-care at an early age are more vulnerable to older self-care children in their communities who can damage or abuse them. These children are more likely to have adjustment problems in school and are more likely to use after-school with socially deviant peers who do not value school and undergo criminal activities. Predictably, then the positive effects of organised after school programs on academic achievement are greater for children in low-income neighbourhoods (Mason & Chuang, 2001).
Bronfenbrenner’s penultimate layer, or exosystem, consists of contexts that children and their peers may not be aware although nevertheless will influence their development. For example, parents’ work environments are an exosystem influence. Children’s emotional relationships at home may be influenced considerably by whether or not their parents enjoy their work (Greenberger, O’Neal, & Nagel, 1994). In a similar fashion, children’s experiences in school may be influenced by their exosystem, by a social integration plan taken on by the school council, or by job cuts in their community that result in a decline in the school’s revenue. Negative impacts on development can also result when the exosystem breaks down. For example, Sidebotham (2002) has shown that households that are affected by unemployment, poor housing and poor social networks are more likely to be involved in increased occurrences of child abuse. Whose comments are justified next to Beeman (1997) who concluded that a lack of social support and a high consistency of negative attitudes towards available networks all contribute towards the chances of child maltreatment.
The majority of the research on the impact of mother’s employment concludes towards a small positive influence on most children (Scott, 2004). Children whose mothers are in employment are more confident and show more admiration for their mothers in contrast to those mothers who do not work. The effect of the mothers work on influencing attitudes and results in school become less apparent, with many studies showing no difference (Gottfried, Bathurst, 1994). Muller (1995) in his large study on the latter topic distinguished a small but comprehensible negative difference on the effect on maths results if that child’s mother was in employment. However, this difference seemed to be based on the fact that mothers who do not work as much are less engrossed with their child’s work and are less likely to oversee the child’s work continuously after school, rather than from a long-lasting deficit brought about by maternal employment in the early years. Thus, working mothers who find ways to provide such supervision and who remain involved with their children’s schools have kids who do as well as children whose mothers are homemakers.
Research evidence intuitively shows that when a man becomes unemployed, it places a strain on his marriage; which in turn leads to an increase in marital conflict and both mother and father show more signs of depression. The effects of these conflicts eventually show the same characteristics as families who are experiencing divorce; both parents appear less coherent in their attitudes towards their children, become less loving and less effective at monitoring them. Similarly, children, in turn respond to this situation as they would during their parents divorce by exhibiting a series of atypical behaviours which can include depression, anger or becoming involved in delinquent behaviour. According to Conger et al (1992), the likelihood of abuse at all levels, shows an increase during times of households unemployment. However, according to Berger (2004) parents who are experiencing divorce but who have a supportive framework and emotional support from friends are increasingly more likely to provide a safe and affectionate environment for children in comparison to those who are occupied in social isolation.
Gorman-Smith and Tolan (1998), in their study of the effects of divorce, did not find that family structure and other familial influences had an independent involvement towards the prediction of exposure to abuse in comparison to that of other risk factors such as the breakdown of traditional social processes in the community. Low income parents are characterised by contributing towards their child’s atypical development as Evans (2004) concludes that parents of such a nature are less likely to communicate with their children, spend less time engaging with them in intellectually stimulating activities and in turn are harsher and more aggressive in their discipline techniques. Not all children follow the same development pathways and there are certain factors that influence their development. For example, children below the poverty line are half as likely to recall the alphabet and have the ability to count by the time they enter the first years of schooling. This development according to Brooks-Gunn (1995) also applies, and is maintained through to adolescence as older children in poverty are twice as likely as their counterparts to repeat a year of school and are less likely to go onto higher education.
In keeping with Bronfenbrenner’s model, parental values on the best way to deal with discipline will be largely in coherence with the larger culture in which they reside. According to Lockhart (Ecology of Development; 345), by striking a child it will usually stop the chid from repeating the behaviour. Although research evidence suggests that children who are spanked, like children who are abused at later ages are less popular with their peers and show higher levels of aggression, lower self-esteem, more emotional instability, higher rates of depression and distress, and higher levels of delinquency and later criminality (Mostow & Campbell, 2004).
Bronfenbrenner’s concluding layer is that of a macrosystem which entails a broad, overarching ideology in which the child is embedded, and whose principles dictate how a child should be treated and how discipline should be distributed. These principles differ across macrosystems (cultures) and sub-cultures and social classes and can have a direct influence on the types of experiences a child will have in all levels of their ecological system. To cite one example, Belsky (1993) discusses how the incidence of child abuse in families (a microsystem experience) is much lower in those cultures (or macrosystems) that discourage physical punishment of children and advocate nonviolent ways of resolving interpersonal conflict. Similarly Clarke (1997) revealed how at the level of the macrosystem, a Government policy that ensures parents have the option to take paid or unpaid leave from their jobs to see to family matters could provide a significant intervention towards child abuse allowing parents more free time to observe their child’s development and resolve difficulties that may arise within their child.
The debate that encircles the surrounding links between culture and child abuse is a complex notion, which has resulted in a myriad of concerns. For instance, recent statistics of child maltreatment has indicated that ethnic minority children are substantially more at risk of abuse than their Caucasian counterparts (U.S Department of Health, 2006). However Lassiter (1987) has countered, showing that these minorities may be over-represented to the relevant services. Lassiter argues that biased statistics do not take into consideration other influencing factors such as socioeconomic status and the level of schooling received. Without considering socioeconomic factors that may also influence the parent and child, research risks inadvertently concluding that factors that increase abuse potential are because of race or ethnicity, or are universal.
The contextual risk variable that looks to have the biggest part in forecasting child maltreatment is having a family member who has also been a direct victim of some form of previous abuse. For example, A parent suffering from the stress of having been victimised herself or having another family member who has been victimised may be overwhelmed and more disturbed by the child’s behaviour and may, therefore, have a lower threshold for viewing the child’s externalizing behaviour as problematic. Primary or universal support targets the community as a whole, with generic initiatives, campaigns and community-based services that support parents and families without entry criteria. Their aim is to prevent problems such as child abuse and family breakdown (Healy & Darlington, 1999).
MacMillan (1994) in describing child abuse interventions found it necessary to distinguish between the differing forms of prevention, including that of primary intervention to which he describes as ‘any manoeuvre that is provided to the general population or a sample of the general population or a sample of the general population to reduce the incidence of child maltreatment;, and secondary prevention, ‘early detection of a condition with the aim of shortening the duration of the disorder’, and tertiary prevention, ‘prevention of recurrence of maltreatment and impairment resulting from abuse’. MacMillan further explained the difficulties in prevention in regards to psychological and emotional maltreatment, which accounts for a high number of reported cases but difficulty arises when evidence needs to be collated, and if emotional abuse is accepted as a form of abuse, then the distinction between primary and secondary prevention or indeed tertiary prevention becomes less clear.
Osofsky (1995) in his research on primary prevention has called for a nationwide campaign that would address to change the attitudes toward maltreatment and lower peoples tolerance of child abuse. Support for an ecological approach to child welfare is evident in the Framework for the Assessment of Children and their Families (Department of Health et al, 2000), which stresses the need to consider not only the factors relating to the child and their parents, but also the wider context in which children live when assessing their needs, acknowledging the impact of social and community factors on children’s welfare. This is also justified through the Every Child Matters document which refers to the concept of ‘Making a positive contribution; being involved with the community and society’. Involving local communities in the prevention of child abuse was acknowledged by Nelson and Baldwin (2002) who asserted that the Every Child Matters model ‘has the potential to involve communities enthusiastically in partnership with agencies in identifying problems and seeking solutions and that the process can help to build communities which are more informed, aware and thoughtful about child protection’. Although the presence of risk factors, such as a poor environment or unsupportive relationships with primary caregivers, or being looked after outside the family, increases the likelihood of a negative outcome for the individual, studies of competence and