Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)
The primary purpose of the current study is to learn about mothers of sexually abused girls. Existing literature has described these mothers as “collusive”, “relationally avoidant and emotionally deplete” dependents or “powerless and helpless” victims. As Tamaraz's extensive literature review (1996) pointed out, however, most information on these mothers is opinion-based (i.e. clinical insights or anecdotal observations). Comprehensive assessment of these mothers has not been conducted yet. Specifically, the current study compared and contrasted mothers of sexually abused girls and mothers of the girls' demographically-matched, non-abused comparison girls. The following information was examined: 1) mother's own abuse experiences; 2) mother's perception of their upbringing; 3) current psychological functioning; 4) family social constellation; and 5) mother's childrearing characteristics.
The current study utilized the sample from an ongoing prospective, longitudinal study of child sexual abuse, which began in 1987 with the support of the NIMH, and recently finished collecting Time6 information (Putnam & Trickett, 1987). The total sample included girls aged 6-16 at an initial assessment, half of whom had experienced confirmed familial sexual abuse. The other half was a demographically-matched comparison group (n=166). Non-abusing mothers of abused and comparison girls (n=127) also participated. Using interviews and standardized measures, information about the mothers was obtained. This is unusual in the area of child sexual abuse study, and it provides excellent conditions for comparing and contrasting two groups of mothers and understanding their distinctive characteristics.
In terms of mother's childhood abuse experience, 45% of the mothers of sexually abused girls reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse, as compared with 15.7% of the comparison group mothers (chi-square=11.4, p<.01). Disproportionately large number of mothers of abused girls also reported emotional abuse by their own mothers (39.7% vs. 18.4%, chi-square=6.09, p<.05). But such group differences were not detected in the rate of childhood physical abuse or emotional abuse experience by father. In terms of mother's upbringing, mothers of abused girls reported their own fathers used punitive controlling strategies more frequently (F=4.64, p<.05) and had less stable residences (F=6.83, p<.01) in childhood. As expected, mothers of abused girls showed higher mean level of current depression and anxiety (Fdepression=7.7, p<.01; Fanxiety=8.0, p<.01). But no group differences were detected in dissociation or severity and frequency of daily hassles mothers perceived. None of the indicators of social network and support characteristics differ by girl's abuse status. Finally, the results revealed that mothers of abused girls less enjoy parenting and perceive themselves as less warm and more negatively controlling parents than mothers of comparison girls. Further analyses were conducted to determine whether these characteristics differ by mother's own sexual abuse experience.
These findings implicate that mothers of sexually abused girls may be a heterogeneous group. Mother's own abuse histories may be a crucial factor to understand intra-group differences and to identify a key intervention element that best suited for each group. These also suggest that future research needs to be devoted to investigating the intergenerational mechanism in child sexual abuse and the role of mother in its transmission.