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Why Do Abused Children Often Grow Up to Be Abusive Parents?

Breaking the intergenerational cycle of child maltreatment starts by tagging it.

Key points

  • It's long been hypothesized that childhood abuse and neglect are passed down from generation to generation.
  • However, until recently, there's been little empirical data that tracked and quantified the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.
  • A recently published study tracked almost 40,000 mother-daughter pairs from 1986-2017 and analyzed intergenerational patterns of childhood abuse.
  • One goal of this research is to disrupt the cycle of intergenerational child maltreatment by supporting survivors of childhood abuse or neglect.
Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

A recently published three-decade study (Armfield et al., 2021) based on data sets from 38,556 unique mother-child dyads from the Impacts of Child Abuse and Neglect (iCAN) study addresses the intergenerational transmission of childhood maltreatment. Some mother-child pairs in this study were subjected to maltreatment as children; others did not experience abuse or neglect. These first-of-their-kind findings were published online on April 30 in The Lancet Public Health.

"To our knowledge, this is the first cohort study to analyze the population risk of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment using definitions of maltreatment based on those used by child protection authorities," first author Jason Armfield of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and co-authors write. "[Our] study adds details of the types of child protection system involvement among mothers and finds a greater risk of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment than in previous studies."

"Having a parent who was maltreated as a child has been identified as the single most important risk factor for child maltreatment, but there [has been] insufficient evidence from high-quality studies," Ruth Gilbert and Rebecca Lacey of University College London write in a commentary (Gilbert & Lacey, 2021) that accompanies this study. "Further research is also needed to explore the role of fathers in the continuity of maltreatment from parent to child," Gilbert and Lacey note.

Child Abuse Cases Often Involve Parents Who Were Maltreated as Kids

Armfield et al.'s recently published study "found very high risk for familial maltreatment among children whose mothers had been maltreated as children." Based on data collected from 1986-2017, the researchers also found that "the majority of child maltreatment is occurring among families caught up in intergenerational cycles of child abuse and neglect."

Notably, 83 percent of substantiated child maltreatment cases examined for this study involved children whose mothers had a history of contact with child protection services (CPS) when they were children. In contrast, among children whose mothers did not have a history of CPS contact, the rate of substantiated abuse was five percent.

Overall, the researchers found that 30 percent of children whose mothers had experienced maltreatment as kids had also experienced maternal abuse or neglect by age 12.

"The results are especially concerning given the generally poor outcomes for victims of child abuse or neglect across multiple health and social domains," senior author Leonie Segal of the University of South Australia said in a May 1 news release. "Abused children often grow into adults with poor impulse control, a heightened sense of shame, an over-alertness to threat, easily triggered, with extreme levels of distress that can result in early substance use and mental illness, compounding harms."

"When these children become parents, their capacity for compassion or trust can be impaired, they often cannot see the needs of their own children, and can find it extremely difficult to provide the nurturing parenting that they would so want to offer," she added. "Our results are consistent with well-described biological mechanisms for intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment, through the lasting impacts of assault or neglect, altered brain development, and disturbed relational patterning, strongly suggesting the observed associations are causal, and at least partly preventable."

After establishing a clear link between mothers who suffered abuse or neglect during their childhood and the likelihood of their kids experiencing the same fate, the researchers emphasize the importance of supporting survivors of childhood maltreatment early in life and into adulthood as a critical step towards breaking this vicious cycle and protecting the unborn children of future generations from maltreatment.

Survivors of Childhood Maltreatment Need Early and Ongoing Outside Support

In their accompanying commentary, Gilbert and Lacey state: "The pervasiveness of child maltreatment and its ongoing effects in adulthood and the next generation needs whole population, public health action to support positive parenting by improving the social, economic, and employment circumstances of parents and providing services for parents and children."

"Children and parents need help. Healing their trauma is an ethical imperative, but also offers large health and economic payoffs to families and the wider community," Segal concludes. "If only we could disrupt the intergenerational transmission pathway, we could prevent the lion's share of child maltreatment and turn around the life trajectories of our most vulnerable children and offer protection to future generations."

LinkedIn image: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock


Jason M. Armfield, Emmanuel S. Gnanamanickam, David W. Johnston, David B. Preen, Derek S. Brown, Ha Nguyen, Leonie Segal. "Intergenerational Transmission of Child Maltreatment in South Australia, 1986–2017: A Retrospective Cohort Study." The Lancet Public Health (First published online: April 30, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00024-4

Accompanying Comment by Ruth Gilbert and Rebecca Lacey. "Intergenerational Transmission of Child Maltreatment." The Lancet Public Health (First published online: April 30, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00076-1

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