Parental Warmth and Rejection: Findings and Research Needs
While the findings on parental warmth and violence are neither very strong nor consistent, the findings on parental rejection and violence are modestly consistent and robust (see Table 12.1). Further, there is emerging evidence from a small number of studies that violent offenders are more rejected than nonviolent offenders. This has important theoretical and practical implications. We hypothesized that low levels of parental warmth may not significantly influence very aberrant violent behavior if they are still within a “normal range” of parenting. On the other hand, the extreme absence of parental warmth (i.e., rejection) may breach the boundary of the average expectable environment and cause violent behavior and other pathologies in the child (see Chapter 2). We expect that we would not see distinctions between violent and nonviolent offenders in level of parental warmth received within the normal range, and that the real differences will emerge at the “rejection” end of the spectrum.
Therefore, measurement of the warmth/rejection dimension deserves more attention than it has heretofore received. In order to optimize the research for application to policy, understanding what level of warmth/lack of warmth/rejec- tion triggers physical aggression in children is important. Studies that measure maternal and paternal warmth, rather than combined parental warmth have yielded stronger findings; looking back at these might inform future research. If warmth is protective, how much warmth must young children experience in order to protect against particular criminogenic influences such as abuse victimization or living in disadvantaged communities, and what are the signs of warmth that are most helpful to high risk children? Which interventions enhance a parent’s capacity to express warmth, and do such interventions result in a measurable and meaningful reduction in children’s physical aggression and delinquency?
On the other hand, what are the things that parents do that make their children feel rejected? More research on parenting and early development could lead the way to understanding the problem in more depth. Normal caregiver behavior includes physical contact, vocalization, and eye contact, while a maternal “rejection syndrome” is characterized by aversion to body contact with the infant and rebuffing attempts by the baby to establish contact. Case studies of physically rejected children who were not held during infancy suggest serious psychological pathology (Hopkins, 1991). There are substantial gaps in the literature, however very few studies compare reports of parental warmth or rejection between violent and nonviolent juvenile offenders. Interaction effects are another fertile area for study. Right now, broad statements regarding the empirical status of warmth as “protective” cannot be made.
There is a paucity of studies of violence and parental warmth with adequate multivariate modeling to assure us that estimates are unbiased. We recommend more studies with carefully specified multivariate models. In particular, the dynamics between abuse and perceived rejection and later physically aggressive and violent behavior are not understood; future research employing structural models might be recommended to test indirect effects. Although a few studies suggest that parental warmth is protective, there is only piecemeal coverage of any given interactive factor, and these are measured in inconsistent ways.
Finally, we came to the unexpected conclusion that sex differences in the effects of parental rejection have begun to emerge, but it is the males who so far seem to be more adversely affected by it. In fact, the studies published so far do not make it clear whether warmth and rejection are even correlated with violence among females. This distinction has both theoretical and practical import, so the matter should be pursued in future research.