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

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 8, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Debra Halseth, LCSW

In the popular television series Law and Order: SVU, the show’s main character— detective Olivia Benson— frequently remarks on the fact that she was conceived because her mother was sexually assaulted. This aspect of her history had a significant impact on Benson’s future career; working as a detective who specialises in sexual assault, she often thinks of the trauma her mother experienced. But her past becomes especially relevant whenever she has to work on cases involving criminals who claim that their proclivity for violence is genetic.

Throughout the course of the show’s 23 seasons, many rapists and murderers insist that they harm others because their parents did, with many specifically stating that they believe in the existence of chromosal abnormalities such as a “rape gene” which compel them to sexually assault others. Whenever these cases arise, Benson often reflects on the similarities between these offenders and her own past. On more than one occasion, she expresses concern that a proclivity for violence may be part of her own genetic makeup and observes that she feels the need to rise above her history and the reality of her father’s choices.

These episodes often have a unique impact on Law and Order: SVU’s audience, with many viewers remarking that they can relate to Olivia’s conflict because they had abusive or violent parents themselves. Thus, the show highlights a sad and important aspect of the human experience: many people who were abused as children worry that they may have inherited the worst aspects of their parents. But is there any truth to that? In this article, we’ll explore that question and address some common misconceptions.

Worried Your Childhood Experience Is Affecting Your Parenting?

We’ll start with a bit of positive news to put your mind at ease. The good news is that being abused as a child does not mean you are guaranteed to abuse your own children in the future. People often talk about a “vicious cycle of abuse” in which those who were abused grow up to be the abusers, but it’s important to remember that this is not a psychological or biological fact. Some people do feel justified in harming others because they were harmed themselves but this is not a biological imperative for everyone. So, now that we’ve established this, let’s unpack this complicated topic and learn a little more about the long-term impacts of child abuse.Am I At Risk Of Abusing Kids?

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. This research aims to help survivors overcome their trauma and develop happy, healthy relationships with their future partners and children.

Dr. Richard Krugman is heavily involved with this research and his background as the 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 people who were abused as children didn’t grow up to misuse drugs, abuse children, commit crimes, or have a mental illness. Krugman argues that studies which suggest the contrary are only showing one part of the story.

So, the good news is that childhood experiences with abuse do not automatically predispose someone to become an abuser. But some aspects of a person’s experience with abuse can create this predisposition, so let’s take a look at those aspects according to Krugman’s research. Krugman posits that certain key factors can worsen and intensify the effects of child abuse, including:

  • Abuse that begins early in life
  • Prolonged abuse over many years
  • Abuse by a loved and trusted parent or caregiver
  • Significant emotional abuse in early life
  • Abuse that the child perceived as being extremely harsh

Krugman’s research has identified these factors as having an especially negative and long-lasting impact on survivors of childhood abuse. However, it’s important to remember that even these factors do not guarantee a proclivity for violence or abuse when the survivor reaches adulthood.

Some Studies Point To Lasting Effects Of Child Abuse

Krugman also asserts that a child’s response to abuse is critical. Survivors of childhood abuse frequently respond to trauma by blaming themselves or denying that any abuse occurred. Studies show that, when reflecting on their past experiences with abuse in childhood, many survivors thought harsh discipline was justified, even if they would be unwilling to put their own child through the same treatment.

Likewise, additional studies have found that survivors of childhood abuse are highly unlikely to impose emotional abuse or physical abuse on their own children.

These studies are supported by the work of Dr. William Altemeier, a pediatrician whose 1986 showed that most survivors of child abuse did not go on to inflict abuse on their own children. Whether the individual had experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse— or a combination of all of the above— most survivors grew up to be especially loving and sensitive parents who prioritised their child’s physical and emotional wellbeing. A study published in the New York Times supported this theory and asserted that one key factor could be identified as the single greatest predictor of a predisposition towards abuse. The study asserted that the child’s perception is key. Put simply, did the abused child view what happened to them as abuse?

A Child’s Perception Of Child Abuse As A Predictive Factor

That might seem like an overly simplistic question but, in reality, this question is of crucial importance for anyone seeking to understand a child’s perception of abuse. For adults and children alike, our experiences help us to make sense of the world. We run our experiences through a mental filter to determine if we have a frame of reference for what we’re experiencing. For example, we might subconsciously be looking for cues such as, “Has this happened to me before? Is this something I associate with negative or positive connotations? What do I know about what’s happening right now?”

All human beings do this but perception is especially important for children as they grow and develop an understanding of the world. Perception therefore helps a child to understand what is happening to them and how they should respond as a result. For example, most people can recall at least one moment in their childhood where a parent lost their temper in some way. Perhaps they raised their voice, said something sarcastic or unkind, or said something they didn’t mean like, “You’re grounded until you’re 30!” Your perception of your parents— and your previous experiences with them— can help you put that into context.

For example, if you deliberately disobeyed your parents or you knew they had had a bad day at work, you might respond to that experience by observing that you were in the wrong or that your parent was understandably stressed and overwhelmed. Raising your voice in a moment of stress— or meting out a reasonable, deserved punishment— doesn’t inherently constitute child abuse. So, as a result, you might feel that you are absolutely safe and that your parent loves you, regardless of this moment of stress. As you can see from this example, a child’s perception of their environment can help them to process a situation and arrive at a conclusion that defines their understanding of an event.

In the case of this example, that conclusion is positive. But imagine if you grow up in an environment where you are regularly hit, belittled, humiliated, or locked in a closet for days on end in response to mild offences such as leaving your shoes in the hallway. Obviously, forgetting to pick up your shoes is something everyone does from time to time— especially kids! And while that may be frustrating— and cause parents to exclaim, “How many times have I told you to pick up your shoes?!”— the offence hardly warrants the punishments described above.

But if you grew up believing that those types of punishments were normal, then you enter the type of problematic territory that predisposes survivors towards abusing others. Put simply, if you grow up thinking that it’s normal and acceptable to treat others in that way, then you’re highly likely to behave that way yourself. This conclusion is supported by the work of Yale psychologists Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler. Their research also asserted that survivors of child abuse who perceive their experiences as normal are more likely to experience a wide range of problems including substance abuse, sexual problems, and mental illness.

Worried Your Childhood Experience Is Affecting Your Parenting?

Help And Hope For The Future

So, are survivors of child abuse more likely to abuse their own children in the future? Not necessarily. As Krugman, Kaufman, and Zigler’s research shows, the answer to this question largely depends on a person’s perception of their abuse. Many people who regularly experienced horrific acts of child abuse grow up to perceive that treatment as normal and therefore are more likely to perpetuate that cycle of behaviour when they become parents themselves.

By contrast, if you realised that you were being abused and that your parents’ actions were not okay, that awareness likely shaped your own values and impacted your treatment of other people. So, if that describes your experience with childhood abuse, you can rest easy: you are not predisposed to harming others or becoming an abusive parent. But if you struggled to identify and accept the abuse you experienced, you should know that you are not alone and you are not beyond help.

With time and therapy, you can process your trauma and work toward a new, healthy way of understanding the world and your place in it. The work you do in therapy may sometimes be uncomfortable because it will require you to confront difficult truths and relive painful experiences. But as difficult as that can sometimes be, it’s important to remember that therapy is so helpful in the long run because it empowers you to be your healthiest self and build secure and healthy relationships. And as you process your trauma with the support of a licensed therapist, you can draw strength and comfort from the knowledge that you are working towards becoming the best and healthiest version of yourself.

So, if you feel ready to reach out and seek hope and healing through therapy, you may want to consider BetterHelp! BetterHelp is an online mental health provider run by licensed counselors and therapists who are passionate about making mental health care accessible to all. With the advances in modern technology, many people have gravitated toward online therapy because this format is more convenient in our hectic, fast-paced world. Rather than needing to amend your schedule to attend an in-person therapy appointment, online therapy is literally right at your fingertips; you can chat with your therapist from the comfort of your own phone any time you want!

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