What determines an abused person’s risk for becoming abusive?

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misinformation passed around regarding how likely a person who was abused is to become an abuser and abuse their own (or other people’s) children. This post is my attempt to clear things up. In this post, we’ll take a look at how the effects of abuse and other traumatic experiences are passed down across generations, we’ll look at exactly what the evidence shows regarding how likely adults who were abused are to become abusers, and we’ll explore the two key differences that exist between people who perpetuate the cycle of abuse and those who break it.

Abuse runs in my family. How are the effects of abuse passed down from previous generations to me?

If abuse has been perpetuated in your family, I want to take a moment to congratulate you. The fact that you’re even reading this post tells me that you are likely a person who is seeking to understand their past experiences and to be proactive about their future, and for that, I commend you. I can already tell that you have the qualities of a cycle-breaker.

Now, because abuse has been perpetuated in your family, there are a few things you need to know. The first thing is that, while the research is still relatively new, it does suggest that the epigenetic effects of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. Does this necessarily mean that if we’ve experienced traumatic events like abuse, it’s inevitable that we also repeat these habits with our children? No, it doesn’t. The reason behind this lies in the difference between genetically and epigenetically transferred risk. If you’re not familiar with these concepts, I break it all down in my post on ancestral or intergenerational trauma. For the full explanation, you’ll want to check that out.

Essentially, traumatic events like abuse are marked by epigenetic changes (and not changes to our actual genes). While we can’t currently change our genes, epigenetics can change depending on our internal (mindset, hormones, nutritional status, etc.) and external (physical environment, social support, etc.) environments. Because we can all control multiple (if not all) aspects of our environments, we don’t have to be defined by the choices of our ancestors.

How reliable is the available data about the abused becoming abusers?

In 2019, a scientific review of the then available research reported that anywhere from 7% to 88% of people who were abused went on to abuse their own children. That very wide (and utterly useless) range exists because the methods that many of the researchers used to gather their data weren’t as reliable as they could’ve been. Instead of looking at Child Protective Services’ involvement or another more reliable metric, the majority of these researchers used subjective means of gathering data. This means they simply asked participants whether they were abused or not and, as you can imagine, this leaves great room for recall bias (e.g. people’s memories may be skewed) and other forms of human error.

To further highlight the problems with the available data, one researcher who conducted another review found that all but one of studies he examined that tried to answer the question of whether or not abused individuals become abusers were of questionable quality.

To summarize, the quality of the majority of research in this area is dishearteningly low, and this contributes in a major way to the lack of consistency that we see across studies.

As an abuse survivor, am I going to abuse my own children?

That being said, several researchers have concluded that there’s absolutely no reason for people to accept the false claim that abused people are doomed to abuse their own children. These researchers have made it clear that this idea is a myth at best (and dramatically damaging at worst). Regarding the myth that the majority of people who are abused grow up to become abusers, researchers have agreed that “its unqualified acceptance is unfounded.”

In fact, more reliable studies have concluded that the majority of individuals who endured abuse do not go on to mistreat their own children. In all actuality, many people who’ve suffered abuse avoid having children altogether because of their own fears of becoming parents like their own parents. Others become so determined to protect their children from what they experiences that they become overly protective. And still others go out of their way to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes and they become model parents.

The anatomy of a cycle breaker

Researchers in England set out to better understand what made the difference between individuals who were abused and went on to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and those who broke the cycle.

They separated the study participants into four groups:

  1. Group 1: parents who were abused and also abused their children. They called this group Maintainers.
  2. Group 2: parents who were abused but did not abuse their children. These were the Cycle Breakers.
  3. Group 3: parents who were not abused but who abused their children. This group was called the Initiators.
  4. Group 4: parents who were not abused and did not abuse their children. This was the control group (Controls).

What qualities do abused children who become abusive parents have?

The results of this study were fascinating. These researchers found that individuals who were abused were more likely to abuse their own children when there were other risk factors for abuse at play in the home. These factors included those that are also recognized as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as the parent being depressed or having another mental health concern, there being substance abuse in the home, and violence between caregivers.

Abuse survivors were also more likely to perpetuate the cycle if they were young parents (under age 21) and if they struggled with feelings of isolation or a lack of support and if they had poor parenting skills.

We can think of these risk factors as part of the environment that sets the stage for abuse and other ACEs and therefore for the epigenetic changes that come along with them.

What qualities do abused people who break the cycle of abuse have? How is this different from those who perpetuate the cycle?

Now here’s what I believe is the most interesting part of this study: When they compared the Maintainers with the Cycle Breakers, researchers found that these groups had very similar risk factors—both had a high prevalence of other ACEs in the home, both had higher prevalence of young parents, and both had poor parenting skills.

But what appeared to make the difference was the fact that the Cycle Breakers had stronger social support and they were also more likely to be financially solvent.

Maintainers had more feelings of isolation. They felt their lack of perceived support more keenly, and they were less likely to be financially solvent. The Maintainers in this study tended to isolate themselves and their families, which led to them not having access to the social and financial support that they needed.

Researchers further described social integration and support as well as financial solvency as key protective factors against breaking the cycle of abuse. These protective factors played a significant role in whether or not the cycle of abuse was perpetuated.

Summary

In closing, I want to reiterate the fact that although the physiological effects of our parents’ and grandparents’ traumatic experiences can be passed down to us, these changes are passed down epigenetically. This means that we do not have to be defined by their choices or subject to their experiences. By being proactive about maintaining optimal internal and external environments, we can carve out our own futures.

I also want to reiterate that higher-quality research demonstrates that the majority of individuals who are abused as children do not grow up to abuse their own or other children. By comparing and contrasting those who maintain the cycle of abuse and those who break it, researchers have found that while the risk factors among these groups are similar, Cycle Breakers have two factors that set them apart from the Maintainers. These two factors—sufficient social support and financial solvency—have a protective effect against the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse.

That being said, if you are a person who has experienced abuse of any kind, I highly recommend the following things:

  1. Take control of your environment so that you can address the epigenetic changes that have taken place in your body as a result of your difficult past. To learn more about this, click here.
  2. Connect and reconnect with like-minded others to ramp up your social support and increase your likelihood of becoming or remaining a Cycle Breaker.
  3. Take a financial literacy course, further your education, or do whatever you need to do to be able to pay off your existing debts and remain financially independent in the future.

 

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