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  • Print publication year: 1989
  • Online publication date: May 2010

14 - Child maltreatment and attachment theory


The study of child maltreatment has grown exponentially in the years since the identification of the “battered child syndrome” (Kempe, Silverman, and Steele, 1962). In that time the area has experienced many of the conflicts and missteps to be expected in an emerging field. Underlying these problems is the lack of a single, comprehensive theoretical approach to child maltreatment (Newberger, Newberger, and Hampton, 1983). It is the purpose of this chapter to examine attachment theory in regard to its adequacy in accounting for the existing data on child abuse and child neglect.

Because child abuse was identified as a social issue earlier than child neglect, it will be discussed first. However, in regard to the early literature, the dichotomy is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to make because cases of neglect or abuse-with-neglect were included indiscriminately under the rubric of abuse. One goal of this chapter will be to disentangle the conditions and consider separately how relevant attachment theory is to understanding them.

The first studies of child abuse focused on identifying the characteristics of abusers. Although abusers were not usually found to be mentally ill, they were often described as more aggressive, punitive, domineering, and inconsistent than nonabusing parents. As more cases of less severe child abuse were reported and investigated, the incidence of clear parental deviance decreased while the evidence for cultural and child influence increased. The societal variables associated with abuse included unemployment, job dissatisfaction, single-parent families, and social isolation of low-income, multiproblem families.

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Child Maltreatment
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