Professor talks to Time about the psychology of child abuse

Elizabeth Skowron

California parents David and Louise Turpin spent years starving and imprisoning their 13 children before one escaped and informed the police earlier this month. The twisted psychology behind such actions seems unfathomable, but, in order to prevent future such tragedies, experts are trying to unravel the parents’ motivations.

Elizabeth Skowron, professor of counseling psychology and human services, gave Time magazine expert commentary on the topic.

Some experts in the article speculate that the wife may have played a secondary role in the abuse because of the husband’s older age and role as the household’s wage-earner. Skowron, whose research at the UO’s Prevention Science Institute shows that mothers are often the initiators of abuse, isn’t so quick to give Louise Turpin a pass.

“From what I can gather, they’re both in this eyeball-deep,” she says. “It seems like they were mutually engaged in keeping their children held hostage.”

Skowron identifies “extreme threat-sensitivity”, a state often seen in highly abusive parents, as a risk factor.

“They view the world through a lens of things that are threatening, that ‘my child is more powerful than me,’” she says. “‘If I am in complete control then I can calm down.’”

For more, see “The Twisted Psychology of Parents Who Torture Their Children” in Time.

Skowron’s research focuses on the neurobiology of parenting at risk and the mechanisms of change in interventions for supporting healthy parenting. She directs the graduate specialization in prevention science.