Are negative/unrealistic parent descriptors of infant attributes associated with physical abuse?

Audrey Young, Mary Clyde Pierce*, Kim Kaczor, Douglas J. Lorenz, Sheila Hickey, Susan P. Berger, Suzanne M. Schmidt, Amanda Fingarson, Kristine Fortin, Richard Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Parents’ perceptions of child behavior influence their responses to the child and may be important predictors of physical abuse. We examined whether infants 12 months of age or younger who were described with negative or developmentally unrealistic words were more likely than other infants to have been physically abused. As part of a prospective observational multicenter study investigating bruising and familial psychosocial characteristics, parents were asked to (1) describe their child's personality, and (2) list three words to describe their child. Four independent raters coded parent responses using a qualitative content analysis, identifying descriptors of infants and classifying each as positive, neutral, or negative/unrealistic. A medical expert panel, blinded to the psychosocial data, separately categorized each case as abuse or accident. We then analyzed the potential association between negative/unrealistic descriptors and abusive injury. Of 185 children enrolled, 147 cases (79%) were categorized as accident and 38 (21%) as abuse. Parents used at least one negative/unrealistic descriptor in 35/185 cases (19%), while the remaining 150 cases (81%) included only positive or neutral descriptors. Of the infants described with negative/unrealistic words, 60% were abused, compared to 11% of those described with positive or neutral words (p <.0001; age group-adjusted OR = 9.95; 95% confidence interval [3.98, 24.90]). Though limited by sample-size, this pilot study informs future work to create a screening tool utilizing negative/unrealistic descriptors in combination with other predictive factors to identify infants at high risk for physical child abuse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-51
Number of pages11
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
StatePublished - Jun 2018


  • Attributions
  • Physical child abuse
  • Screening tool

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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