I Had Abusive Parents: Am I At Risk Of Abusing Kids?

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW

Around the time that adults get married or think about having children of their own, it’s natural for them to reflect on their own childhoods. Those that had parents who were married a long time wish to have a long, healthy, happy marriage of their own. They have high hopes of being wonderful parents to their own children. But what about people who are parents or who are about to become parents that didn’t have a happy childhood? If you had abusive parents, does that mean that the tragic cycle will continue? Or is it possible that because you suffered child abuse, you will have parenting techniques that are quite the opposite of what you grew up with?

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Researchers have been studying abusive parents in an attempt to learn as much as possible about what starts the cycle of child abuse and keeps it going so that children of abusive parents can avoid the issues that might lead them to abuse their own children.

The results are greatly mixed on which parents will inflict child abuse on their own children and it depends on many factors. If this is something that’s been weighing on your mind, you might consider getting professional help. A licensed counselor can help you work through any residual issues that you have from your own childhood and help you to work together with your life partner to establish healthy parenting habits.

What the Research Says About Parents That Were Abused as Children

The idea behind the research of children who were abused is to identify specific childhood experiences that will help them overcome their past and become the type of parents they truly desire to be.

Dr. Richard Krugman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Medical School and director of the C. Henry Kempe Center for Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, says that studies have shown a high percentage of men and women that were abused as children didn’t grow up to abuse drugs, abuse children, commit crimes, or have a mental illness. Those studies that tell that abused children grow up to commit child abuse show only part of the story.

Krugman says that the key factors that could worsen the effects of child abuse over the long-term are early abuse; child abuse that continued for a long period; abuse where the perpetrator and child were close; abuse that the child perceived as harmful; and abuse that occurred where their family members were cold. These are the types of factors that researchers are reviewing to help identify which children may need the most urgent treatment for child abuse.

Some Studies Point to Lasting Effects of Child Abuse

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Child abuse victims frequently respond to trauma by blaming themselves or denying that any abuse occurred. Studies show that some adults thought harsh discipline was justified. Many victims of child abuse and childhood trauma can recover from their abuse with the help of therapy. The right therapy can help repair an individual’s self-worth and improve their relationships with their parents.

The term child abuse includes emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and domestic violence.

In any given year, approximately 1 in 7 children is a victim of neglect or child abuse of some kind, according to the CDC.

Judith Herman from Somerville, Massachusetts is a psychiatrist that made some breakthroughs regarding abusive parents and incest. One of her studies showed that among women that were incest victims, only half recovered well by adulthood. Women that were abused by fathers or stepfathers and those who suffered prolonged, intrusive child abuse had the most problems as adults.

Martin H. Teicher, MD, Ph.D., points to studies where adolescents who were condemned murderers were later found to be victims of extreme child abuse. Nearly all the teens had been victims of emotional abuse, physical abuse, and domestic violence. In many of these cases, children were victims of extreme physical abuse.

New Studies Reveal the Strongest Predictor of the Effects of Child Abuse

In cases of domestic violence or child abuse, other studies show that many children don’t impose emotional abuse or physical abuse on their own children.

Dr. William Altemeier, a pediatrician at Vanderbilt University Medical School, published a report in 1986 that showed most victims of child abuse, whether it was due to emotional abuse, physical abuse, or domestic violence, or something else, didn’t go on to inflict child abuse on their own children. As detailed in the New York Times, the study found the strongest predictor was whether child abuse victims perceived abusive acts as actual abuse.

A Child’s Perception of Child Abuse as a Predictive Factor

A child’s experiences help them to make sense of their world. Child abuse is often difficult for adults to understand. It’s sometimes difficult to discern child abuse from discipline or an adult that’s just having a bad day. The lines of what constitutes child abuse are even more blurred for children.

For example, emotional abuse can take the form of yelling. At what point does yelling become child abuse? Emotional abuse is often more than yelling. It can entail belittling or berating a child, calling them names, or worse. The same is true for discerning whether certain acts can be construed as physical abuse or domestic violence. Most child experts don’t condone spanking, but it’s not illegal in many states. Occasional mild spanking isn’t usually considered physical abuse, but regular hard spanking or spanking with objects can be construed as physical abuse. Domestic violence doesn’t always affect a child in a direct way, but it can still have a negative impact on children. Research indicates that up to 15.5 million children in the United States live in homes where there is domestic violence between parents or between parents and an intimate partner.

Children that regularly witness domestic violence are nearly always impacted by it. The more children are exposed to domestic violence, the more they may see it as normal rather than perceiving it as child abuse.

The best indication that we currently have about whether victims of child abuse will become child abusers themselves comes from a study by Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler, who are both psychologists at Yale University. They surveyed various studies and came to the conclusion that 30% is the best guess of what child abuse looks like from one generation to the next. Their research also confirmed what other studies have shown which is that child abuse increases the likelihood that child victims are subject to a range of problems including depression, substance abuse, sexual problems, and multiple personalities.

Overall, researchers have discovered that many children who were victims of domestic violence or child abuse in some other form don’t believe that they were, in fact, victimized at all. It’s for this reason that victims of domestic violence and child abuse go on to abuse their own children.

In Dr. Krugman’s work, he would ask adults if they were abused as children and they’d tell him they weren’t. When he gave them an example, such as being burned for breaking a minor house rule, they didn’t agree that the discipline amounted to child abuse. Three-fourths of men in one of his studies responded in this way. Dr. Krugman notes other examples that participants in his studies gave such as being locked in a closet for a day or being beaten until they had bruises, where they attributed the harsh discipline as just because they were bad kids. In many cases, adults agreed with the harsh disciplinary measures their parents gave them in the name of making them turn out okay.

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As cited in the New York Times article, Terry Hunt, who is a psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts specializes in working with adults who suffered child abuse, his patients tend to think the abuse they suffered wasn’t all that bad. He finds that the key to their treatment and recovery is helping them face the facts that they’ve bought into the fallacy that they were bad kids and therefore they deserved to be abused. He often finds that the latent damage from early child abuse presents itself in their adult relationships where they’re waiting for their partner to use them, hit them, or abuse them in some other way. In his practice, Dr. Hunt found that the most troubled adults were those who were told by someone other than their parents that the abuse was justified.

Researchers are also looking for answers about the specific factors that help child abuse victims grow into well-adjusted adults. They’re hopeful that they’ll be able to help therapists to improve the treatment of abused children to recover from that trauma as adults.

Whether you’re part of the 30% that is at a high risk of abusing your children or not, help is available. You have nothing to lose and plenty to gain by seeking the counsel of a licensed online therapist. A therapist can help guide you to whether you need long-term therapy to dig deep on issues or whether you need just a few sessions to keep things in perspective.

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