Safe, Stable, Nurturing Relationships Break the Intergenerational Cycle of Abuse

There is a widespread belief dating back to the 1960s [1] that “abuse breeds abuse”—that children who are victims of maltreatment in turn grow up to become abusive and neglectful parents. Despite such beliefs, the intergenerational transmission of abuse is not inevitable [2][3][4][5]. Methodologically rigorous studies have demonstrated that although children whose parents have a history of abuse or neglect are at elevated risk of experiencing maltreatment themselves, the cycle of abuse is not perpetuated in most families [6][7][8][9][10][11]. Estimates of the continuity of maltreatment across generations range from 7% [7] to 60% [12], depending on the length of follow-up, the credibility of measurement, and the composition of the sample.

Studies have identified numerous factors that contribute to the cycle of abuse. Compared with women who were not maltreated as children, those who have a history of maltreatment tend to become parents at a younger age, have more mental health problems, be more likely to reside with a violent adult [7], and have more substance use problems [13]. They also report more social isolation, respond more aggressively to ambiguous social cues [6], and make more negative attributions about their children’s behavior [7].

Other studies have identified conditions under which the intergenerational cycle of abuse is broken. Distinguishing families in which the cycle of abuse is perpetuated from families in which it is not has identified implications for the prevention of maltreatment. For example, families in which the cycle of abuse is broken are ones where mothers have more social support [14][15] and fewer serious financial problems compared with families in which the cycle is maintained [14]. Interpersonal relationships with other adults that are characterized by warmth, trust, and support have been identified as key factors in breaking the cycle of abuse in other studies. These include socially supportive relationships with an adult during childhood [12], high-quality attachment to a primary caregiver in childhood [11], a relationship with a therapist, and an emotionally supportive relationship with an intimate partner in adulthood [12]. Improving the quality of parents’ relationships with their own children may also prevent the transmission of maltreatment across generations [16]. Pears and Capaldi [9] found that in families in which parents were consistent in their use of discipline, the parents’ history of abuse was no longer predictive of their child’s experience of maltreatment.

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