Professor Says Teens May Be Prime Target of Family Violence


More than babies or wives, teen-agers may be the primary targets of family violence, a Cal State Fullerton professor told a child-abuse prevention conference on Thursday.

Mildred Pagelow said she surveyed 1,025 sociology students at Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and UC Riverside and found that nearly half said they were physically abused by either one or both parents after the age of 12. Eighty-eight percent said there was some form of physical abuse at home.

While the survey is not a representative sample, Pagelow said it serves to illustrate the “magnitude of parental violence toward children” because it is probably conservative. Presumably the teen-agers who go on to college--estimated at 40%--have certain social advantages. “It’s difficult to imagine any reason why the other 60% would have grown up in less violent homes,” she said.

Pagelow, an adjunct research professor of sociology, presented her unpublished 1986 study at Families First, the second annual conference co-sponsored by several social service agencies in observance of Child Abuse Prevention Week.


She said she distributed questionnaires to upper- and lower-division students in sociology courses in the spring and fall of that year. The study was voluntary and confidential. But many students wrote essays or called her to tell her their stories of abuse, she said. The majority, 77%, of the respondents were women.

More mothers than fathers used violence against their children, but tended to slap or bite them while fathers used more potentially dangerous types of violence such as kicking, punching, choking and other methods of beating, said Pagelow.

Half complained of emotionally abusive screaming and yelling, she said.

Pagelow said a national incidence study estimated that 47% of the victims of all forms of child mistreatment are between 12 and 17 although they compose only 38% of the population.

In 1989, Orange County received 22,677 child-abuse reports, of which 23% were for children 13 to 18. While both the 4-to-7 and the 8-to-12 age group each compose 25% of the reports, teen-agers probably do constitute a larger group of abused children because of the uncounted numbers of runaways living on the streets, said Gene Howard, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency.

Because of their larger size and greater strength, adolescents are rarely seen as helpless or as innocent as younger children, she said. Teen-agers may not be considered “abused” because their injuries aren’t perceived to be sufficiently severe or because the physical violence may be defined as “discipline.”

Many abusive incidents are preceded by adolescents either disobeying or arguing with their parents who then may claim the child provoked the incident, she said.

Nationally, reports of child abuse rose 10% in 1989, the largest single-year increase since 1985, said Anne Harris Cohn, executive director of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, who delivered the keynote address.


A larger proportion of cases include substance abuse, particularly cocaine or its more addictive derivative, crack, extreme poverty and high levels of family violence, she said. Child abuse fatalities rose 35%.

However, she said a recent telephone survey of 1,250 randomly selected adults across the country showed an encouraging shift in attitudes toward violence.

Among those answering, 15% fewer parents than in 1987 said they yelled or swore as a discipline method; 13% fewer said they spanked or hit their children; and during the past year, 60% said they had not yelled or sworn at their children. Almost half said they never spanked or hit.

Nevertheless, she said, in order to stem the tide of child abuse, prevention workers need to focus on the drug problem, fight violence on television and corporal punishment in schools.