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Parents who were physically abused as kids don’t go on to abuse their kids

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'It’s not inevitable.'

Bruce Tuten / Flickr

Parents who were physically abused as kids aren’t more likely to be violent with their own kids, according to the first large-scale, long-term study of child abuse published in Science yesterday. The finding contradicts aspects of the "cycle of violence" theory, which suggests that children who endure physical violence as children go on to perpetrate those same behaviors on their own children. That said, parents who had experienced neglect or sexual abuse as kids were more likely to have kids who experienced the same problems, according to the study.

Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse

"People shouldn’t assume that all parents with histories of abuse and neglect will abuse their kids," says Cathy Widom, a psychologist at City University of New York. "It’s not inevitable." The majority of people who have histories of physical abuse don't replicate these behaviors with their own kids.

"People shouldn’t assume that all parents with histories of abuse and neglect will abuse their kids."

The study is more comprehensive than its predecessors; gathering the data took close to 30 years. "I began research on what is now referred to as ‘the cycle of violence’ in the late 1980s," Widom says. In 1986, she launched a study that asked if childhood abuse lead to an increase in risk for delinquency, crime, and violence. "I decided that I would get documented cases of abuse and neglect — court cases for children between the ages of zero and 11 — so I could establish the temporal relationship between abuse and neglect and these outcomes." She ended up recruiting 900 kids through these court cases, which took place between 1967 and 1971. Then, Widom matched these kids with 600 other children who weren’t documented victims of abuse, but who lived in the same neighborhoods and went to same schools.

To find out whether abuse is transmitted through generations, the researchers interviewed these children, now adults, when they were about 29 years old. Widom and her team contacted them again when they turned 47. By then, about half of the participants decided that they didn’t want to take part in the study anymore. During that second round of interviews, the researchers also got in touch with their kids — adults in their early 20s — and used Child Protective Services reports to fill in the gaps.

The findings indicate that parents who suffered physical abuse during their childhoods aren't more likely to be violent toward their children, compared with the parents who hadn't been physically abused as kids. That doesn't mean that abuse isn't transmitted at all, however. Parents who had experienced neglect or sexual abuse as kids were more likely to have kids who experienced the same problems, according to the study.

"increased risk for sexual abuse and neglect, not physical abuse."

"Child Protective Service reports show that the offspring of parents with histories of abuse and neglect are at increased risk for sexual abuse and neglect, but not physical abuse," Widow said. And the offspring reports — reports from the second generation of kids involved in the study — were consistent with that finding.

It's still an open question who was responsible for the neglect or sexual abuse — the study didn't examine that. What it does show is a general increase in risk for the children of victims. "We, as researchers, need to do more work as to why," Widom says. "And practitioners need to consider that it’s not necessarily people with histories of physical abuse that are passing abuse onto their kids."

"bias when families are previously known to the system."

The study also provides evidence for a child abuse reporting bias. Parents who were abused as children were two and a half times as likely to be reported to child protective services for physical violence compared with parents in the comparison group who admitted to physically abusing their kids, or whose children said they had suffered physical abuse. "This does suggest that there is in fact some type of bias when families are previously known to the system," Patricia Kohl, a social scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, told Science Magazine. Of course, it’s also possible that parents who were physically abused as kids are harder on their kids, making the maltreatment easier to detect — but that question is beyond the scope of the study.

A three-decade-long study

The fact that this study spans 30 years is unusual. Instead of asking young adults and parents about their abuse histories during a single interview, the researchers checked in with the first generation of study participants more than once over the course of three decades. Moreover, the study didn’t rely solely on what the parents and kids were willing to talk about. "We have clear cases of abuse and neglect in the parent generation not just based on self-report," Widom says.

Despite these improvements, the study doesn’t give a complete picture of child abuse in the US. For example, the majority of kids that Widom recruited in the late '80s came from low-income households. This is unfortunately pretty typical for these kind of studies. Because recruitment tends to rely court cases and child protective services reports, higher-income households — households that don't come into contact with social workers very often — are rarely included.

In addition, the kids that Widom studied in the '80s all grew up in the Midwest, so the population isn't representative of the entire country. They moved around a lot as they grew up — "the people are now in over 40 states," Widom says — but that isn't enough to make up for the geographical sampling effect. Finally, children who were adopted were excluded from the study altogether.

"This was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done."

"There are things that I wished that we could have done better, but the reality is that this is just very difficult. That’s why nobody has ever done it before," Widom says. "This was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done."

Wisdom and her team aren’t done working on the data they’ve gathered. "We know from my earlier work that people who were physically abused as a child go on to have a higher likelihood of being violent when they get older," Widom says, "but we don’t know why they do not appear to be violent toward their own offspring." Evolutionary biologists might suggest that this has something to do with wanting to protect a child with whom you share your genes, Widom says. But if that were the case, one might expect the protection imparted by shared genes to extend to neglect and sexual abuse as well.

The researchers also plan to look at other factors that might be involved in the intergenerational transmission of abuse, like genetics, drug use, alcohol abuse, social isolation, and mental health disorders. Even though the study took three decades to complete, it's just a starting point, Widom says. "We can ask all those other questions now; everyone in my team is sort of chomping at the bit to do that."