Child abuse and neglect is a widespread and costly problem in the United States. Approximately 3.9 million children were subjects of maltreatment reports to child welfare agencies in 2013. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child abuse and neglect cost the U.S. $124 billion in 2012.
In order to help children facing maltreatment, researchers and clinicians first needed to address the heart of the problem. The relationship between the parent and child is key, argues Kristin Valentino, William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in an article published recently in a special section of the journal Child Development.
More than 90 percent of maltreated children are victimized by one or both parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “My position is that child maltreatment, in most cases, can best be understood as a problem in the parent-child relationship,” Valentino says. “Thus, we should focus on enhancing the parent-child relationship in our intervention efforts.”
Two broad kinds of relational interventions between parents and children are available to researchers and clinicians. In her article, Valentino examines brief models and long-term models, both designed to improve not only how well parents understand their children and how to react to them, but also the child’s attachment security. The latter plays a critical role in supporting positive development, including coping skills, emotional and behavioral functioning, peer relationships and even physical health.
Children who are neglected, abused or otherwise mistreated often develop emotional problems, Valentino says: “Up to 80 to 90 percent of maltreated children develop what is known as disorganized attachment. This classification is one type of insecure attachment and is associated with the worst outcomes including severe problems in emotion regulation, school achievement and the development of psychopathology.”
Valentino reviews the pros and cons of brief and long-term intervention methods, and conclusively recommends a tiered approach wherein families are provided with brief interventions first, and subsequent long-term approaches if needed.
“Given limitations on resources and funds to support treatment in the child welfare system, this approach would allow us to provide services to more families, and to identify families who should be referred to more intensive programs in a targeted manner,” Valentino says.
Valentino is a clinical and developmental psychologist who conducts research with families through Notre Dame’s Shaw Center for Children and Families. Her current research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of a brief relational intervention for maltreated preschool-aged children and their mothers in a randomized clinical trial design.
The article, titled “Relational Interventions for Maltreated Children,” is featured in a special section of Child Development that addresses how best to address the developmental needs of different at-risk populations of children and families. The special section contains a set of papers from 12 sets of specialists in order to provide expert recommendations that are useful to both clinicians and policymakers.