NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A widespread belief that most parents who were abused as youngsters are destined to harm their own children is unfounded, according to two Yale researchers.
"Adults who were maltreated have been told so many times that they will abuse their children that, for some, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy," writes Edward Zigler, a Yale psychology professor, and graduate student Joan Kaufman.
"Many who have broken the cycle are feeling like walking time bombs," fearing that someday they may harm their children, the two said.
Zigler, a respected child development expert, and Kaufman recently reviewed more than 40 articles in professional literature concerning child abuse research and found fault with many of the studies' methodologies. For example, some were not based on groups representative of the study population, and some failed to use control groups to make comparisons, they said.
The studies reported widely differing rates of abused children who became abusive parents--from 18% to at least 90%, the researchers wrote.
Using some of the studies as a base, Zigler and Kaufman estimated that between 25% and 35% of abused children mistreat their own offspring, reporting their conclusion earlier this year in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
They relied heavily for their figure on one 1984 study that found that 34% of severely abused mothers physically abused their children. Since the sample in that study concerned mothers they considered to be highly at risk for abusing their children, the psychologists said they reasoned "that the intergenerational hypothesis will be confirmed in less than one-third of all cases when more representative populations are samples."
An estimated 5% of parents in the general population abuse their children, Kaufman said.
"It is important that we not give the impression that abuse doesn't have bad effects. It does," she said. "Abuse can be devastating to one's sense of self. In fact, abused children are six times more likely to become abusive parents than parents in the general population."
A contributing factor to child abuse is the prevalence of corporal punishment in the United States, Zigler said.
"About 97% of parents report that they spank or hit their children. In Sweden, it is against the law for anyone to spank a child, including parents," Zigler said. "Obviously, although the law is practically unenforceable, Swedish legislators are trying to give parents a message."
The researchers pinpointed several factors that apparently steer abused children away from later harming their own children.
"Parents who did not repeat the cycle of abuse tended to have more extensive support from family and friends and were more openly angry about the abuse they experienced as children," Kaufman said. "Not only could they describe that abuse in great detail, but they were determined not to abuse their own children."
The non-abusive parents also reported that at least one of their own parents was loving and did not abuse them as children, or described a current spouse or lover as supportive.
Counseling and therapy also helped, Kaufman said.
Factor in Custody Case
Zigler said he became interested in learning more about the topic when a family court lawyer told him a client was denied custody of her children in a divorce case solely because she had been abused as a child.
"The judge had the mistaken notion that, even though she had never abused her children, she would inevitably do so," he said.
A history of abuse has also led some people to decide not to have children, Kaufman said.
"We were aware of one woman who was professionally counseled that abuse was a cycle that would 'inevitably and unwittingly repeat itself,' " she said. "She reluctantly decided she would remain childless so the cycle would stop with her."