Walter Howard Smith, Jr., PhD
This paper uses Bowen family systems theory to explore child abuse as an aspect of family adaptation to challenging and threatening circumstances. Child abuse is defined as violence that is directed toward children, results in harm or injury, and interferes with child maturation. As a symptom of individual and family functioning, child abuse reflects basic emotional processes. The way these families respond to stressful events and circumstances triggers their perceiving family responses as threats. Aggression and violence become ways of managing these threats. The essay describes how perceived threats and child abuse are aspects of chronic conditions in families. In some instances, these conditions are sustained for generations.
While child abuse injures children, it stabilizes family relationships. This complicates professional and family efforts to simply change the behavior. Bowen theory provides a conceptual and theoretical framework for professionals to create effective clinical hypotheses and interventions which address both the specific behaviors of child abuse and the basic family emotional processes which sustain the symptom.