Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768dbb666b-vkhs7 Total loading time: 0.947 Render date: 2023-02-05T15:48:58.650Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Chapter 16 - Maternal Negativity and Child Maltreatment

How Evolutionary Perspectives Contribute to a Layered and Compassionate Understanding

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 September 2022

Riadh Abed
Mental Health Tribunals, Ministry of Justice, UK
Paul St John-Smith
Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, UK
Get access


In Western culture, both the lay public and mental health professionals tend to believe that mothers evolved to love all of their children instinctually and unconditionally. In contrast, any mother who feels ambivalence or hostility towards her child is typically seen as unnatural, and a mother who maltreats her child is seen as behaving pathologically. This chapter draws on evolutionary research to challenge this widespread view of motherhood. In particular, it describes how raising children has required mothers to negotiate a series of complex, precarious and layered trade-offs, and it argues that maternal negativity and child maltreatment can arise from this. The goal of this chapter is to foster a more evolutionarily valid, nuanced and compassionate understanding of motherhood. Such an understanding has the potential to contribute to clinical work with faltering mothers as well as to programmes focused on preventing maternal maltreatment of children.

Evolutionary Psychiatry
Current Perspectives on Evolution and Mental Health
, pp. 244 - 259
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abu-Saad, K. and Fraser, D. 2010. Maternal nutrition and birth outcomes. Epidemiologic Reviews, 32, 525.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Alami, S., Von Rueden, C., Seabright, E., Kraft, T. S., Blackwell, A. D., Stieglitz, J., Kaplan, H. and Gurven, M. 2020. Mother’s social status is associated with child health in a horticulturalist population. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287, 20192783.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Apicella, C. L. and Silk, J. B. 2019. The evolution of human cooperation. Current Biology, 29, R447R450.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Assink, M., Spruit, A., Schuts, M., Lindauer, R., Van Der Put, C. E. and Stams, G. J. M. 2018. The intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment: a three-level meta-analysis. Child Abuse and Neglect, 84, 131145.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Atari, M. 2020. Culture of honor. In: Zeigler-Hill, V. and Shackelford, T. K., (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 977981.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baek, S. U., Lim, S. S., Kim, J. and Yoon, J. H. 2019. How does economic inequality affect infanticide rates? An analysis of 15 years of death records and representative economic data. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16, 3679.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. and Kroonenberg, P. M. 2004. Differences in attachment security between African-American and white children: ethnicity or socio-economic status? Infant Behavior and Development, 27, 417433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barrett, L., Dunbar, R. and Lycett, J. 2002. Human Evolutionary Psychology. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Black, R. E., Allen, L. H., Bhutta, Z. A., Caulfield, L. E., De Onis, M., Ezzati, M., Mathers, C. and Rivera, J. 2008. Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. Lancet, 371, 243260.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Boehm, C. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Bowlby, E. J. M. 1969/1997. Attachment and Loss: Attachment. London: Pimlico.Google Scholar
Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. J. 2009. Culture and the evolution of human cooperation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 32813288.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bradshaw, J. 1988. Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.Google Scholar
Bridges, R. S. (ed.) 2008. Neurobiology of the Parental Brain. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
Brown, L. S. 2011. Nutritional requirements during pregnancy. In: Sharlin, J., and Edelstein, S. (eds.), Essentials of Life Cycle Nutrition. Ontario: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, pp. 124.Google Scholar
Chamberlain, G. 2017. Why climate change is creating a new generation of child brides. The Observer, 26 November.Google Scholar
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A. and Anita Singh, A. 2018. Household Food Security in the United States in 2017. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.Google Scholar
Crookston, B. T., Dearden, K. A., Alder, S. C., Porucznik, C. A., Stanford, J. B., Merrill, R. M., Dickerson, T. T. and Penny, M. E. 2011. Impact of early and concurrent stunting on cognition. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 7, 397409.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cuartas, J., Weissman, D. G., Sheridan, M. A., Lengua, L. and Mclaughlin, K. A. 2021. Corporal punishment and elevated neural response to threat in children. Child Development, 92, 821832.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
De Vries, M. W. 1987. Cry babies, culture and catastrophe: infant temperament among the Masai. In: Scheper-Hughes, N. (ed.), Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, pp. 165185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Denham, A. R. 2017. Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
Dettwyler, K. A. 1994. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
Dion, J., Paquette, G., Tremblay, K.-N., Collin-VÉZina, D. and Chabot, M. 2018. Child maltreatment among children with intellectual disability in the Canadian Incidence Study. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 123, 176188.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Drixler, F. 2013. Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950. Berkley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Gabler, S. and Voland, E. 1994. Fitness of twinning. Human Biology, 66, 699713.Google ScholarPubMed
Gurven, M. and Kaplan, H. 2007. Longevity among hunter‐gatherers: a cross‐cultural examination. Population and Development Review, 33, 321365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hawkes, K., O’Connell, J. F. and Blurton Jones, N. 1989. Hardworking Hadza grandmothers. In: Standen, V. and Foley, R. A. (eds.), Comparative Socioecology: The Behavioural Ecology of Humans and Other Mammals. London: Blackwell Scientific Publications, pp. 361366.Google Scholar
Helfrecht, C. and Meehan, C. L. 2016. Sibling effects on nutritional status: Intersections of cooperation and competition across development. American Journal of Human Biology, 28, 159170.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Henrich, J. 2015. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. and Norenzayan, A. 2010. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 6183.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hill, K. and Hurtado, A. M. 1996. Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Hoppitt, W. and Laland, K. N. 2013. Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
House of Commons 2019. Hunger, Food Insecurity and Malnutrition in the UK. Florence: UNICEF Office of Research.Google Scholar
Howell, N. 1979. Demography of the Dobe !Kung. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Hrdy, S. B. 1999. Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species. London: Chatto & Windus.Google Scholar
Hrdy, S. B. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Kaufman, G. 1992. Shame: The Power of Caring. Rochester, VA: Schenkman Books, Inc.Google Scholar
Kilday, A.-M. 2013. A History of Infanticide in Britain c 1600 to the Present. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Laland, K. N. 2017. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lancy, D. F. 1996. Playing on Mother-Ground: Cultural Routines for Children’s Development. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
Lancy, D. F. 2015. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E. and Pain, C. 2010. The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levine, R., Dixon, S., Levine, S., Richman, A., Liederman, P. H., Keefer, C. H. and Brazelton, T. B. 1996. Child Care and Culture: Lessons from Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Lloyd, J. B. and Sieff, D. F. 2015. Return from exile: beyond self-alienation, shame and addiction to reconnect with ourselves. In: Sieff, D. F. (ed.), Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers. London: Routledge, pp. 2545.Google Scholar
Madigan, S., Cyr, C., Eirich, R., Fearon, R. M. P., Ly, A., Rash, C., Poole, J. C. and Alink, L. R. A. 2019. Testing the cycle of maltreatment hypothesis: meta-analytic evidence of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. Developmental Psychopathology, 31, 2351.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mann, J. 1992. Nurturance or negligence: maternal psychology and behavioral preference among preterm twins In: Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 367390.Google Scholar
Mcdonnell, C. G., Boan, A. D., Bradley, C. C., Seay, K. D., Charles, J. M. and Carpenter, L. A. 2019. Child maltreatment in autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability: results from a population-based sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60, 576584.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mckerracher, L. J., Nepomnaschy, P., Altman, R. M., Sellen, D. and Collard, M. 2020. Breastfeeding duration and the social learning of infant feeding knowledge in two Maya communities. Human Nature, 31, 4367.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Murphy, N. 2011. Maltreatment of children with disabilities: the breaking point. Journal of Child Neurology, 26, 10541056.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Myers, S. and Johns, S. E. 2017. Trade-offs in mother–infant bonding: a life history perspective on maternal emotional investments during infancy (poster). Presented at: 5th Annual Toulouse Economics and Biology Workshop: The Evolution and Economics of the Family. Toulouse: Institute of Advanced Studies, 1–2 June.Google Scholar
Nesse, R. M. 2019. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
Nisbett, R. E. and Cohen, D. 1996. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Nowak, A., Gelfand, M. J., Borkowski, W., Cohen, D. and Hernandez, I. 2016. The evolutionary basis of honor cultures. Psychological Science, 27, 1224.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Numan, M. and Insel, T. R. 2006. The Neurobiology of Parental Behavior. Berlin: Springer Science+Business Media.Google Scholar
Olds, D. L., Sadler, L. and Kitzman, H. 2007. Programs for parents of infants and toddlers: recent evidence from randomized trials. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 355391.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Parker, R. 1995. Mother Love/Mother Hate: The Power of Maternal Ambivalence. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Parker, R. 2012. Shame and maternal ambivalence. In: Mariotti, P. (ed.), The Maternal Lineage: Identification, Desire and Transgenerational Issues. London: Routledge, pp. 85112.Google Scholar
Pereira, A., Handa, S. and Holmqvist, G. 2017. Prevelance and Correlates of Food Insecurity among Children across the Globe. Innocenti Working Papers. Florence: UNICEF Office of Research.Google Scholar
Porter, T. and Gavin, H. 2010. Infanticide and neonaticide: a review of 40 years of research literature on incidence and causes. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11, 99112.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Potts, R. 2013. Hominin evolution in settings of strong environmental variability. Quaternary Science Reviews, 73, 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reijman, S., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Hiraoka, R., Crouch, J. L., Milner, J. S., Alink, L. R. A. and Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. 2016. Baseline functioning and stress reactivity in maltreating parents and at-risk adults: review and meta-analyses of autonomic nervous system studies. Child Maltreatment, 21, 327342.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
SchiefenhÖVel, W. 1989. Reproduction and sex-ratio manipulation through preferential female infanticide among the Eipo, in the highlands of west New Guinea. In: Rasa, A. E., Vogel, C. and Voland, E. (eds.), Sociobiology of Sexual and Reproductive Strategies. London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 170193.Google Scholar
Sear, R. and Mace, R. 2008. Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sellen, D. W. 2006. Lactation, complementary feeding, and human life history. In: Hawkes, K. and Paine, R. R. (eds.), The Evolution of Human Life History. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, pp. 155196.Google Scholar
Sieff, D. F. 1990. Explaining biased sex ratios in human populations: a critique of recent studies. Current Anthropology, 31, 2548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sieff, D. F. 2015. Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Sieff, D. F. 2019. The Death Mother as nature’s shadow: infanticide, abandonment and the collective unconscious. Psychological Perspectives, 62, 1534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sieff, D. F. 2020. Trauma-worlds and their transformation: moving beyond a life built around fear, dissociation and shame [video]. YouTube. Retrieved from Scholar
Spieker, S. J. and Bensley, L. 1994. Roles of living arrangements and grandmother social support in adolescent mothering and infant attachment. Developmental Psychology, 30, 102111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stevenson-Hinde, J. 2011. Culture and socioemotional development, with a focus on fearfulness and attachment. In: Chen, X. and Rubin, K. H. (eds.), Socioemotional Development in Cultural Context. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 1128.Google Scholar
Terahima, H. and Hewlett, B. S. (eds.) 2016. Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers: Evolutionary and Ethnographic Perspectives. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tracy, M., Salo, M. and Appleton, A. A. 2018. The mitigating effects of maternal social support and paternal involvement on the intergenerational transmission of violence. Child Abuse and Neglect, 78, 4659.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Tucker, C. J. and Finkelhor, D. 2017. The state of interventions for sibling conflict and aggression: a systematic review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 18, 396406.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Coughlan, B. and Reijman, S. 2020. Annual research review: umbrella synthesis of meta-analyses on child maltreatment antecedents and interventions: differential susceptibility perspective on risk and resilience. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61, 272290.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Volk, A. A. and Atkinson, J. A. 2013. Infant and child death in the human environment of evolutionary adaptation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34, 182192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
WHO. 2020. Child maltreatment. World Health Organization. Retrieved from Scholar
Willführ, K. P. and Gagnon, A. 2013. Are stepparents always evil? Parental death, remarriage, and child survival in demographically saturated Krummhörn (1720–1859) and expanding Québec (1670–1750). Biodemography and Social Biology, 59, 191211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Woodman, M. and Sieff, D. F. 2009. Confronting Death Mother – an interview with Marion Woodman. Spring, 81, 177199.Google Scholar
Yengoyan, A. A. 1981. Infanticide and birth order: an empirical analysis of preferential female infanticide among Australian Aboriginal populations. Anthropology UCLA, 7, 255273.Google Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats