Parents Abused as Children Aren’t More Likely to Physically Abuse the Next Generation

March 27, 2015 Updated: March 28, 2015

A landmark study conducted over 30-years found that parents who suffered physical abuse as children were not more likely to be violent with their own kids. The results undermine the prevailing consensus that patterns of physical abuse are passed from one generation to the next.

 “All of the literature had led us to believe that physical abuse would be passed on from one generation to the next. That is not what we found,” said Cathy Widom, a psychologist at CUNY, on a Science Magazine podcast.

The study recruited 908 people who had been abused and neglect—as documented by court filings—between the ages of 0 to 11 and followed them as they aged and started their own families. A control group of 667 people who were not evidently abused as children were recruited to serve as a comparison. The rate at which parents abused their own children was examined using information provided by child protection agencies, as well as self-reports from the parents and their children.

“Parents who had histories of abuse and neglect did not report more child abuse than the comparison group subjects,” Widom said.

The strength of the study is founded upon its longitudinal nature and its survey of multiple generations. Many previous studies relies on snapshot surveys of people who were asked about their own childhood history—data encumbered with all the defects of recollection—and their behavior towards their own children.

“[The results] reinforced for us the fact that that we shouldn’t rely on only one source of information and that the source of information makes a large difference. Having only one source, as sometimes happens in the big epidemiological surveys, may lead to incorrect conclusions,” Widom said.

The scope of the study is limited to people whose abuses were noticed by the legal system. Widom said that victims of abuse in middle and upper-class families were possibly less likely to be reported to child-services, where patterns of abuse may be different.

The researchers were not surprised to find that other patterns of abuse—neglect and sexual abuse— are correlated between parents and their children.

“Parents who have histories of neglect are more likely to have children who are sexually abused, but it is not necessarily the case that those parents are the perpetrators,” Widom said in an email.

Children of parents who were neglected were twice as likely to be sexually abused, Widom said, and listed drug problems, mental illness, and a failure to protect their children from sexual predators as possible causes that will continue to be studied.