The abused child as parent: The structure and content of physically abused mothers' perceptions of their babies

Michael A. Gara, Lesley A. Allen, Elaine P. Herzog, Robert L. Woolfolk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Objective: The major aim of the study was to provide an empirical answer to the following question: Does a mother's history of being physically abused as a child have a discernible impact on the structure and content of her perceptions and beliefs concerning her own child? Method: Free-response memories and current descriptions of babies, self, and significant others such as parents were compared longitudinally in two groups of mothers when their babies were 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years old. One group of mothers consisted of individuals who reported being physically abused as children; the control group consisted of mothers who were not physically abused. The two groups were comparable with respect to age of baby, race, and socioeconomic status. Results: Abused mothers were found to differ significantly from control mothers in the structure and content of their free-response perceptions of their own babies. More specifically, abused mothers lagged behind controls in how well-differentiated were their negative perceptions of their babies. Differentiation in this study is operationally defined as the number of unique clusters that underlie a mother s perceptions of her baby, when social perception data is analyzed using cluster analysis (HICLAS). The greater the number of clusters observed, the greater is the differentiation. On the other hand, abused mothers were comparable to controls with respect to differentiation of positive perceptions of babies. Conclusions: The findings constitute a discovery about the structural organization of social cognition in mothers at-risk for child abuse. Implications of the findings for theory and future research are briefly discussed, as are limitations of the current study. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)627-639
Number of pages13
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


  • Child abuse
  • Cluster analysis
  • Social cognition


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