Etiology: Why do People Abuse or Neglect Children?

For abuse or neglect to occur, these key elements must be present: an adult whose potential for maltreatment has been reached, the presence of a susceptible child, and the environment or situation that promotes the abusive or neglectful behavior. Most episodes of child abuse and neglect take place within the child’s family and are symptomatic of the family’s dysfunctional nature.11 Approximately 80% of the perpetrators of child maltreatment are parents. Approximately 40% of child victims were maltreated by their mothers acting alone. Another 18.3% were maltreated by their fathers acting alone while 17% were abused by both parents.12 The following composites of the abusive adult and the maltreated child will hopefully assist dentists and their staff to identify suspected cases of abuse or neglect:

Abusive or Neglectful Adults13,14

  • Young, usually between 20-30 years of age
  • Emotionally immature
  • Socially isolated
  • Poorly controlled aggressive tendencies
  • Impulsive, self-centered
  • Competes with child/children for attention
  • Psychologically or physically ill
  • Economically disadvantaged
  • Present or past history of substance abuse
  • Abused as a child

Abused or Neglected Children15,16

  • Youngest in a large family
  • Physical or mental disabilities
  • Product of an unwanted pregnancy
  • Premature or low birth weight
  • Possess characteristics evoking negative responses from parent

Additional conditions or situations that may lead to added stress on an already fragile atmosphere include changes to the financial situation, employment status, and the family structure.