Date of Award

Spring 1986

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


The study investigated the relationship between parental aggression and children's cognitive development. Parental aggression was studied in terms of both verbal aggression and use of physical force. Indexes developed from form N of the Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus, 1979) were used to measure both variables at three levels: low, middle and high. The dependent variables were measures of the child's (A) cognitive style, (B) cognitive functioning and (C) self-esteem.

Previous research indicates a relationship between abuse and cognitive development: Ackly (1977), Elmer (1967), Martin (1979). A methodological limitation of these studies is that they used samples of children previously identified as abused. The sample in the current study consisted of fifty-two children and their parents attending the Portsmouth elementary schools during the years 1983-1985. The sample was stratified on the basis of whether or not the children were labeled emotionally disturbed.

The major findings of the study indicate that parental verbal aggression is directly related to language development. The associated delays may foster a cognitive style which has negative consequences for achievement.

Parental violence is related to delays in children's development of an internalized locus of control even when verbal aggression is controlled for. The study hypothesized that self-esteem played an intervening role between parental use of force and/or aggression on the child's cognitive development. This relationship was not observed.

The handicapped children in the sample experienced parental aggression more often and at a greater level of severity than did their non-handicapped peers.

The findings about the nature of the relationship between parental aggression and children's cognitive development have implications for further study of the effects of parental violence. They also suggest that an understanding of the intergenerational transmission of child abuse involves cognitive deficits as well as behavioral and psychiatric processes. The research identifies the enmeshment of parent and child in terms of definitions of the world as contributing to sustained patterns of parental aggression. It suggests that the development of greater self-differentiation and competency in both parent and child might represent an important step in reducing parental violence.