Abused Children May Become Abusive Adults

By Claudia L. Romeu

A study published in April of last year makes an association between being victim of child abuse and becoming a perpetrator of intimate partner violence as an adult, begging a large-scale response, according to the study’s principal investigator.

“There is a need for a public health perspective, national campaigns and education,” said Lina Millett, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, published in the journal Child Maltreatment, followed more than five thousand children with documented cases of child abuse and neglect. After 16 years of following the participants the researchers gathered intimate partner violence data from arrest records and restraining orders. It is the first study of its size and scope to utilize administrative data rather than rely on participants’ recall of abuse.

The study found that child abuse and neglect had a direct effect on adult intimate partner violence perpetration for men. In other words, boys who were abused or neglected are more likely to become abusive with their partners in adulthood than those who had not been abused.

It also found that being abused or neglected as a child is a predictor for juvenile violence and use of mental health services for both genders, and predictive of juvenile substance abuse for males. Further, it was shown that children who have all these risk factors are at much higher risk for becoming abusive in adult relationships.

Social learning theory, which explains that behaviors are learned in a social context purely through observation or instruction, suggests that children may learn violent behaviors through their exposure at home, which then promotes aggression in adolescence. This in turn increases their chances of becoming violent as adults.

To stop this trajectory of well documented, generational abuse, researchers and advocates are pushing a more aggressive public health minded approach to preventing abuse. This kind of approach takes a preventative rather than a reactive approach to child maltreatment.

The last decade has seen a push for a stronger focus on primary and secondary prevention of child abuse and neglect. Primary prevention of child abuse is now being seen as a priority in order to prevent child maltreatment from occurring in the first place. Additionally, secondary prevention with groups at risk has also received priority through interventions like home visitations. Once the abuse occurs, strategic interventions within Child Protective Services (CPS) are implemented in order to ameliorate harm and foster future family cohesion.

“Historically child abuse and neglect has not been seen as a public health concern at all,” Millett said.

The approach has mainly been reactive and through CPS. However, many abused children do not go through the CPS system and therefore lack many services, especially in mental health.

Services must be provided at all different levels, at all ages and with all members of the family, according to Millett. Interventions should not only focus on fulfilling the needs of the child abused or neglected as has been the traditional approach, but also with juvenile delinquents, youth with mental health issues and those at risk for violent behavior.

Working with parents should also be a main focus of interventions.

“One thing that is sort of missing even in child prevention literature is that we provide support for children, but I have not seen that much help for parents,” Millet added.

Offering parenting classes, fulfilling parents’ psychological needs and substance abuse treatment are only some of the ways that current interventions are adding parents to the equation.

Claudia L. Romeu is a Masters in Public Health Candidate at University of California at Berkeley.  Her professional interests are maternal and child health, and adolescent reproductive health. 

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 182 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at dheimpel@fosteringmediaconnections.org.