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Reducing child abuse

When abusive mothers hear crying babies, their autonomous nervous system does not react strongly enough. This is the conclusion reached by Sophie Reijman, PhD candidate in Child and Family Studies, in her research. This finding may provide leads for reducing child abuse. Defence on 16 December.

Weaker nervous system response in abusive mothers

Every year an estimated 119,000 children suffer child abuse. Reijman compared mothers who were being treated for neglect and/or abuse with mothers who did not abuse their children. She specifically observed the responses of the autonomous nervous system (ANS), one of the body’s stress systems. To do so she measured the mothers’ heart rate and skin conductance as they listened to their babies crying. The nervous system response turned out to be weaker in abusive mothers. This is in line with the inadequate care these mothers provide, says Reijman. ‘The most common form of abuse in our sample is neglect, in other words: neglecting to meet the physical or emotional needs of your child.’

Disrupted regulation

A meta-analysis of 12 studies on physiological regulation as a risk factor in child abuse also revealed that the autonomous nervous system of abusive parents is more active when at rest than that of non-abusive parents. ‘Both results point towards a disrupted physiological regulation in abusive parents. The activity and reactivity of the system do not match the needs of the moment. Child abuse often results from the interaction of a number of factors. But we can now claim with some caution that a disrupted regulation of the autonomous nervous system forms a risk factor for child abuse.’

Unprocessed trauma

Reijman also found that in interviews, abusive mothers who had suffered a past trauma, such as sexual abuse or bereavement, or who had themselves been the victim of abuse, talked about these events in an incoherent way. ‘These interviews focused not only on what someone had gone through, but also the way in which she spoke of these experiences. The interviewee might for instance talk about a deceased loved one as if they were still alive, without being aware of the incongruence of this.’ Such indications of unprocessed trauma are more common in abusive mothers. ‘This kind of confusion can also arise at home and affect the quality of the parenting.’


According to Reijman, it is important to understand the risk factors for child abuse in order to reduce its incidence. ‘It may be possible to restore the disrupted physiological response through training programmes such as bio-feedback. This involves recording physical responses such as the heart rate and projecting them onto a screen. In this way people are given insight into their own physiological functions and they may learn to control the activity and reactivity of the autonomous nervous system. The next step is to investigate whether such training programmes can help reduce the incidence of child abuse.’

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