Intergenerational Abuse: It's Time to Break the Cycle

More often than not, abuse experienced during childhood impacts one's life well into adulthood. Whether we want to admit it or not, our childhood shapes who we are. When we are forced to confront abuse as kids, we may find it difficult to walk down the better path when faced with a cross-road later in life.

When it comes to domestic violence, there is often a cyclical effect. Although a number of children who were victims of childhood abuse do not go on to abuse or neglect their own children, there are, unfortunately, many that do. Too often, we create mirrors of what was seen when growing up and pass that pain, hurt, and confusion down to another generation. It's time that this cycle breaks.

What Is It?

Intergenerational abuse is when ill-treatment experienced during childhood is repeated by a child as they get older within their own adult family. This could result in the victimization of one's own children, their spouse, or even a sibling. Intergenerational abuse is often when a victim of abuse repeats the actions of their abuser in some regard and victimizes someone else. However, it can also be, as is the case especially with victimized females, a propensity to be re-victimized by ending up with an abusive partner. These repeated situations of abuse later in life often create unsafe and unhealthy conditions for children and subsequently, creates a pattern of violence that goes on for generations.

It can quite simply be boiled down to an "it happened to me, so it can happen to you" attitude, and this article attempts to investigate why this attitude is so prevalent in our society.

"It is essentially when a victim of abuse repeats the actions of their abuser in some regard and victimizes someone else."

Why Does It Happen?

There are several theories as to why abuse manifests itself through intergenerational patterns, but some of the most commonly discussed are:

Social Learning Theory - States that individuals emulate the behaviour that they are exposed to as kids. It draws on the idea that adult behaviours are shaped by observation and imitation during childhood, and therefore, if you experienced abusive parenting, you may regard it as acceptable and/or effective and foster a similar relationship with your own children.

Attachment Theory - Built on the idea that kids require a nurturing attachment with a caregiver early in life. When a caregiver is unavailable because they are abusive or are grappling with abuse themselves, such as in cases of intimate partner violence, a child's basic need for attentive and responsive caregivers is not met, and therefore, it is difficult for them to develop self-regulation skills or a good sense of self. They also often develop an understanding of the world and others as threatening and unavailable. These issues in a child's early development is theorized to hinder their ability to form healthy attachments in their adult life and often leads to the repetition of abusive patterns.

Trauma-Based Models - Idea that abuse experienced as kids creates trauma symptoms, which if left unsettled and/or untreated, increase the likelihood of violent behaviour as an adult.

What Is The Impact?

  • According to Canada's 2014 General Social Survey, those who were physically and/or sexually abused as children were more than twice as likely to have been violently victimized as adults during the 12 months prior to the survey. In general, this group was considered at a higher risk of being the victim of both spousal and non-spousal violence later in life.

  • In a study of 4,351 newborns in Essex, England, families with an abused parent were significantly more likely to maltreat their infants within 13 months after birth. Approximately 1 in 15 families with a parent who experienced childhood abuse would maltreat their infant, as opposed to 1 in 234 families with a parent who did not experience childhood abuse.

  • According to multiple studies, approximately 1 in 3 victims of childhood abuse grow up to continue a pattern of neglectful and abusive parenting.

  • A survey of 5,908 French women found that 1 in 7 women with a history of childhood maltreatment also reported serious abuse by their spouse. This is in comparison to 1 in 20 of those without this childhood experience.

  • In a survey of women in the United States, 1 in 10 women who had experienced one type of abuse in childhood were victims of domestic violence. Furthermore, for women who had experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, 1 in 3 were victims of domestic violence.

  • One North American study found that children exposed to domestic violence were 15 times more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average.

  • 30 to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household.

"Approximately 1 in 3 victims of childhood abuse grow up to continue a pattern of neglectful and abusive parenting."

What Can Be Done?

Although trauma is much too frequently passed through generations, you can break the cycle. The first and most important step towards this is having the courage to look back on your past, your loved one's actions, and your own hurt with clear eyes. It is not easy to reflect on the pain you endured as a child, and more so, the way it's affecting you today. Yet, it is an extremely important step in ensuring you don't repeat similar behaviour. This sometimes will require you to go against the accepted norms of your family, and as such, requires a commendable amount of strength and resiliency. The first step in breaking the cycle of violence is recognizing that you, nor your children, deserve to suffer just because others in your family have in the past.

Don't be afraid to reach out for help as you try to unlearn harmful patterns of behaviour. Mental health professionals, such as therapists, can help you work through tough memories and guide you to better understand the way they affect your present behaviour in a safe and comfortable manner. You can also lean on your own group of friends and healthy family members, and/or join support groups in your community or online. Don't feel that you need to break this cycle alone; it is tough work, so be sure to embrace the love and support of those around you.

At the end of the day, ending intergenerational trauma comes down to awareness; both on an individual level and on a community level. Taking steps to constantly build on your awareness and understanding of the way your traumatic childhood experiences affect your adult relationships is necessary in order to build a better tomorrow for yourself and the next generation.

"The first step in breaking the cycle of violence is recognizing that you, nor your children, deserve to suffer just because others in your family have in the past."

This is the first article in the Intergenerational Trauma and Revictimization Series. Be sure to check back weekly for the release of articles related to this topic!

Written By: Prish