A group of 39 mothers who had a physically abused child at an average of 6 years previously and a group of 14 mothers who had a child with non-organic failure to thrive (NOFTT) 13 years ago were reviewed. Each child was compared with a child matched for age and sex and for ethnic group, residential area and social class of the parents. The mothers from the NOFTT group knew less than their comparison mothers about their child's education and on a personality test were less able at intellectual and abstract concepts. The abuse group mothers were more mobile and more isolated than their comparison group. They were less likely to have been brought up by their own parents and had more negative feelings towards their fathers. They had lower self-esteem and higher expectations for their children than the comparison mothers. On a personality assessment they were more assertive, demanding and suspicious than the comparison mothers. Although child abuse and non-organic failure to thrive have been described as part of the same spectrum, the characteristics of the parents on follow-up are different. As some of the adverse characteristics of the parents persist long after the presenting incident, the need for a long term treatment programme aimed at supporting children who remain in these families is recommended.