The Cinderella effect: child injury in stepfamilies

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Cuts, bruises and broken bones – kids are always hurting themselves. But does the structure of a family impact the likelihood of a child being injured?

University of Adelaide psychology PhD student Catia Malvaso examined the factors that increase the chance of a child being injured in biological families compared with stepfamilies.

She found that while children in stepfamilies do sustain more injuries than children in biological families, it is not the family structure that is a risk factor for child injury. The key factors that put a child at increased risk of injury are male gender, frequently moving house and having a mother with an alcohol problem. The study was published this month in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma.

“The term ‘Cinderella effect’ has been used since the 1980s and it refers to the alleged higher incidence of mistreatment and abuse by stepparents,” says Ms Malvaso, lead author of the study.

“When comparing children who were injured with those who weren’t, we found an increased risk for children in stepfamilies compared to biological families. However, this was attributed to other factors, not the family structure.

“Moving house was identified as a risk factor for child injury. It might be that children who move often are required to change schools and friendship groups. Moving to a new neighbourhood can lead to families becoming disconnected, resulting in less community child supervision (neighbours looking out for children). Children in any family were at an increased risk of injury if they moved frequently but children in stepfamilies were also more likely to regularly move.

“Having a mother with an alcohol problem also increased the chances of child injury. Research found parental alcoholism results in less parental supervision, poorer parent-child relationships, and was linked to severe and multiple injuries in children. Alcoholism was associated with injury in both step and biological families but other factors, such as the stress of a family breakup, may account for more children in step families having an alcoholic mother,” she says.

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Ms Malvaso says it is likely that boys experience more injuries because they are bigger risk takers.

“Boys have been found to engage in more aggressive and hyperactive behaviour than girls, and therefore might be more likely to be impulsive or engage in active pursuits or risk-taking behaviours,” says Ms Malvaso.

“Children with behaviour problems are also more likely to get injured,” she says. Boys are more likely to have a behaviour problem like Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Although it was not possible to separate injuries that were accidental from those which occurred as a result of abuse or neglect, Ms Malvaso believes similar risk factors apply for all injuries regardless of intent.

“Research has found a significant proportion of children presenting to hospitals for injuries are in fact already known to Child Protective Services, and that similar risk factors lead to both unintentional injuries and abuse or neglect,” she says.

“The next stage of this research will analyse child injury incidence in a broader range of family structures, including foster families, single parent families and families with adopted children. We will investigate whether these same risk factors influence injury in all families, and if there are changes in risk factors over time,” says Ms Malvaso.

(Source: The University of Adelaide, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma)

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Date Created: September 22, 2015