The "Cycle of Abuse" Myth

Everyone has heard the idea that abused children will grow up to abuse their own children. It's been accepted as a fact for years now. It makes an easy explanation: How could someone act that way? It must be something learned in childhood. If everyone is shaped by environment, then growing up in a bad environment must create a bad person If we learn how to act towards children from our own experiences as children, and those experiences are bad, we must grow up to believe that's how things should be.

There's a problem with this theory: there's no evidence to back it up. In fact, solid research evidence says the opposite. Recent studies show that about 80% of survivors never abuse their children or any other child.

There is no single reason why any adult abuses a child; there is no straight line from experiencing abuse as a child to abusing children as an adult. Direct cause and effect relationships are simple, easily explained to the average person, and create the illusion that since we've identified the cause, we can do something about it and prevent the effect. But simplicity isn't necessarily accurate. There is no one, clear answer. There are many factors leading someone to be abusive, and childhood experience is only one of them.

The myth began with a single study in 1968 of 60 families, referred to the authors (Steele and Pollock) for psychiatric problems. In that study, parents had recreated their own upbringing with their children. The authors included a warning that this was a biased group and conclusions couldn't be drawn from it, but the idea caught hold and spread.

Other studies have been based on prison populations. Only 33 - 40% of convicted offenders of child abuse were abused as children themselves (as compared to 25 - 33% of society in general) (Marshall and Barbee). Not every survivor ends up in prison; not everyone in prison was abused. But if you look only at convicted offenders for those who have been abused, everyone studied will have gone on to become an offender.

Another source of referrals for studies is the social assistance system, which leads to a limited group dealing with other factors that have an impact, such as poverty and education. Unbalanced and backward statistics like these have been used as "proof of an ongoing cycle, even though they leave out the many survivors who belong to neither group.

In 1979, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a more balanced study by Hunter and Kilstrom. They talked to 282 parents of newborns. These children were considered to be at high risk for abuse because they were premature. Forty-nine of the parents reported having been abused or neglected as children. Of these, only nine (18%) went on to be abusive themselves. Of the parents who were not abused, one went on to abuse a child.

More and more evidence shows that the whole concept of an inevitable cycle of abuse is nothing more than a myth.

Contrary to the popular notion of a "generational cycle of abuse, " however, the great majority of survivors neither abuse nor neglect their children. Many survivors are terribly afraid that their children will suffer a fate similar to their own, and they go to great lengths to prevent this from happening. For the sake of their children, survivors are often able to mobilize caring and protective capacities that they have never been able to extend to themselves. Judith Lewis Herman, MD (1992). Trauma and Recovery,  p 114

Despite highly publicized but irresponsibly quoted statistics that seem to predict adults abused as children will inevitably maltreat their own or other children, survivors much more frequently direct anger and abuse toward themselves in some variation of trauma reenactment syndrome. Correlations between childhood victimization and offender behavior in incarcerated felons—the population most available for study-have no bearing on the lives of functional survivors. In fact, the vast majority of survivors grow up to be fierce protectors of children, determined that no other child will ever be hurt as they were. Mary Bratton, MS, LPCC (1999). From Surviving to Thriving, p 110

Survivors are actually much more likely to direct aggression inward than they are to become abusive themselves. Studies have found strong links between childhood abuse and self-mutilation and suicide attempts, but no clear relation to violent behaviour as adults. Women especially are more likely to be victimized by others or injure themselves.
As a result of this myth, many survivors live in fear that they will do to their children what was done to them, that it's a destiny they can't escape. It's thrown around as a statement of fact, that if you're a survivor, you shouldn't have children. Yet the majority of survivors never repeat the cycle.

These days, the focus is changing from "What goes wrong?" in 20% of cases to "What goes right?" in 80%. Instead of wondering why one in five go on to become abusers themselves, researchers are now trying to figure out why four out of five don't. Instead of researching what damages people, they want to know what makes them strong.

So what does go right? Resilience is the ability to overcome childhood abuse. It is not some kind of mysterious ability to be completely unaffected by trauma, or to walk through life with no pain, no scars, and no damage, or to recover instantly and completely. It's the strength to overcome the trauma and rebound from experience, to keep going.

Our experiences affect us, but the past doesn't define what the present or future have to be. Childhood abuse does not automatically lead to a life of abusing children. The concept of an endless cycle of abuse, carried on from generation to generation, may sound simple and logical, but it just doesn't fit the facts.
 

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