Abuse of Adolescents by Parents

Abuse of Adolescents by Parents

Abuse of Adolescents by Parents
Abuse of Adolescents by Parents

The fact that even teenagers can be abused by their parents used to be overlooked entirely or subsumed under the heading “child abuse” and then neglected in favor of a focus on the very young and totally helpless. Attempts to define and measure abuse become confusing because of cultural ambivalence about the thin line between physical abuse and physical discipline (see Jackson et al., 2000). Many adults consider venting parental wrath justifiable when there is “sufficient provocation”—if a teen- ager is argumentative, defiant, incorrigible, or out of control. Adolescents are not viewed as particu- larly vulnerable or defenseless, as are infants, tod- dlers, and children under 12. The same force that could injure a little child might not seriously wound a teenager. The overt consequences of psy- chological abuse and emotional neglect become less detectable as adolescents mature into independent young adults (see Lourie, 1977; Libbey and Bybee, 1979; and Pagelow, 1989).

As boys grow older, the power differential between parents and their sons decreases and phys- ical abuse declines. As girls become sexually mature and seek greater independence, the power differen- tial between parents and their daughters diminishes more incrementally, leading to conflicts as parents attempt to impose restraints backed up by force. Sons who strike back get into legal trouble for assault. Girls generally do not fight back physically, but they seek to escape a repressive household by running away, acting promiscuously, or taking drugs. The majority of abused teenagers are white and from low-income families where they are either the only child or one of four or more chil- dren. The abusive parents tend to be middle-aged, are often stepparents, and are going through their own mid-life crises. Excessive parental force takes

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the form of hair pulling, slapping, choking, beating, threatening with a knife or gun, and assault with a weapon (see Pagelow, 1989).

Statutory Rape of Minors

Statutory rape generally is defined as sexual inter- course involving a teenager younger than 16 and a partner three or more years older, although the laws of the 50 states show some departures from these stan- dards. A national survey carried out in 2002 discov- ered that the first sexual experiences of 13 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys technically could be con- sidered as statutory rapes (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). The problem has been largely overlooked by criminologists and victimolo- gists because of the absence of reliable data and the presence of a willing victim. But information con- tained in the FBI’s NIBRS database for 21 states dur- ing the years 1996–2000 sheds some light on about 7,500 cases that were reported to police departments, either directly by the minor or by the boy or girl’s parents or caretakers. The police kept track of these complaints when an older wrongdoer (of any age) engaged in sexual relations with a younger person (between ages 7 and 17) who is not mature enough in the eyes of the law to willingly grant consent. In other words, these cases of nonforcible sexual inter- course would not be illegal if both partners were old enough to make responsible decisions.

A few high-profile cases of female teachers car- rying on affairs with underage male students have challenged the prevailing stereotype of exploitative older males taking advantage of teenage girls. But the NIBRS data confirms that this widely held image indeed is based on facts: The overwhelming majority (95 percent) of the complaints centered on allegations by female minors against adult males. Very few adult male homosexuals were involved in exploitive relationships, according to the NIBRS reports. In the relatively rare cases in which boys were considered victimized (5 percent), the overwhelming majority (94 percent) of their sex partners were older females, not older males. The average age difference between the older males and the girls was six years, while the average gap between older females and boys was nine years. About 30 percent of the wrongdoers considered themselves to be boyfriends or girlfriends; 60 per- cent were classified as acquaintances; 7 percent were members of the victims’ families; and the remainder were strangers. The police made an arrest of the older sex partner in a little over 40 percent of the cases (Troup-Leasure and Snyder, 2005). However, many young adults question whether a sexual rela- tionship with a willing partner who is a minor should be treated as a criminal matter, even if it appears to be exploitive, as long as the age gap between them is not more than a few years (Oudekerk, Farr, and Reppucci, 2013).


The true extent of the victimization of children can- not be accurately measured. As a result, maximalist alarmists assume the worst and call for stepped-up measures to head off a crisis. Minimalist skeptics dis- agree and believe that the incidence, prevalence, and seriousness of the indisputably real problems of phys- ical child abuse, sexual molestation, and kidnappings are not spiraling out of control.

Although children are highly desirable targets for kidnappers and pedophiles, analyses of reports about missing children yield the somewhat reassur- ing finding that abductions by strangers that result

in murders are relatively rare. Efforts to recover kidnapped children are much more organized and effective than they used to be when the problem first surfaced at the start of the 1980s.

Infants, toddlers, children, and even teenagers are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by their caretakers: parents, older siblings, and other fam- ily members such as stepparents, as well as babysitters, teachers, and acquaintances. Maximalists and minim- alists differ over whether these twin problems of physical and sexual abuse are intensifying or subsid- ing. It appears maltreatment in its many forms is

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declining but the worst cases—leading to child fatalities—are not decreasing appreciably.

Bitter controversies surround charges of retrieved memories of molestations during child- hood, accusations about parental sexual abuse voiced during divorce proceedings, and claims of abuse by religious figures. Stories about sexual abuse during satanic rituals have faded away.

The legal system’s handling of young witnesses for the prosecution has improved dramatically in recent years. Children harmed by their parents are

assigned a guardian ad litem to advocate on behalf of their best interests. They are questioned with greater care but still face special difficulties in establishing the credibility of their testimony. Courtroom procedures and cross-examination practices have been reformed so that they are less intimidating and less stressful for youngsters serving as witnesses for the prosecution. However, these new practices must not violate the rights of defendants who may be falsely accused and must be considered innocent unless proven guilty, civil libertarians insist.

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