Many years ago, as I was sitting in a courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness in a case involving junk psychology, I observed a child custody case ahead of ours. A social worker was arguing that the mother in question should not be granted custody of her children, full or even shared. True, the mother had never hit or otherwise physically abused them; but, said the social worker with certainty, the mother had herself been abused as a child and it was virtually certain that she would in the future repeat the crimes of her parents. Psychologists have called this common idea the “cycle of abuse.” It seems to affirm our intuitions that abused children would grow up to become abusive parents themselves, given that all children imitate so much of what they observe at home. But new evidence shows that once again our intuitions have led us astray.
Most people take it for granted that the path from childhood to adulthood is a fairly straight one. We think of the embedded attitudes, habits, and values our parents taught us—some of which we are still trying to eradicate. Many people, as legions of memoirists remind us, carry with them the psychological scars of wounds they suffered at the hands of cruel, violent, alcoholic, unloving or neglectful parents. Longitudinal studies repeatedly find that children abused in these ways are more likely than other children to develop emotional problems, become violent or depressed, attempt suicide, commit crimes, drop out of school, and develop chronic stress-related illnesses. Adults imprisoned for violent acts and child abuse report high rates of their own victimization as children.
The belief in a cycle of violence was clinically popular but empirically unsupported, emerging from accounts by psychotherapists and social workers whose perspective was understandably onesided…
Yet…what is missing from this picture? The group we don’t see: children who were abused but who proved to be resilient, growing into healthy adults determined not to revisit on their own children what they had suffered. We aren’t aware of them because they aren’t in therapy or prison, telling their stories to sympathetic listeners and researchers. I once had a brilliant freshman student who described his life as typical of a “kid in a bad novel”— a family destroyed by drugs, violence, and chaos. “What saved you?” I asked. “Math teacher in high school,” he said. “He thought I was smart. Showed me I was. He got me into this university.”
My student’s experience is not as rare as commonly believed. When researchers began to critically examine the assumption that harmful early experiences almost always have long-lasting negative effects, the deterministic “cycle of abuse” weakened. The majority of children, they discovered, are resilient, eventually overcoming even the effects of war, childhood illness, having abusive parents, early deprivation, being sexually molested, or having alcoholic parents. (This doesn’t mean their lives are entirely peaches and cream, of course, or that they have no emotional struggles.) As long ago as 1987, two psychological scientists, having reviewed ten years of studies of children of alcoholic parents, concluded that “parental alcoholism is undoubtedly disruptive to family life” but that “neither all nor a major portion of the population of children from alcoholic homes are inevitably doomed to psychological disorder.”1
The belief in a cycle of violence was clinically popular but empirically unsupported, emerging from accounts by psychotherapists and social workers whose perspective was understandably onesided: they saw only confirming cases of abusive adults who said they themselves had been abused. The research studies that existed had fatal flaws. They relied on cross-sectional designs (in which different groups of people are studied at the same time) rather than prospective designs (in which the same children are followed over years into adulthood). Their definitions of “abuse” were inconsistent, and rarely confirmed by documented evidence, such as court records. They depended on what adults recalled of their past experiences, and of course memories are subject to distortion, forgetting, and embellishment. And they lacked control groups of non-abused children.
Psychologist Cathy Spatz Widom of John Jay College, part of the City University of New York, has been investigating this immensely complex question for decades, designing meticulous research to remedy the difficult methodological problems. “Because there is no single gold standard to assess child maltreatment,” Widom observes, “we used multiple sources of information, multiple measures to assess different types of maltreatment, and multiple time points when information was collected.” They gathered records of maltreatment reported by child protective services (CPS), court records of criminal behavior, and indepth interviews with the children, their parents, and other adults.
In the 1970s, Widom and her team began retrieving archival records of court-documented cases of abuse to locate 908 abused and neglected children, ages from infancy to 11 years, matching them with a comparison group of children from the same neighborhoods and of the same age, gender, race, and approximate socioeconomic status. They call these children Generation 2 (G2), having gathered extensive information as well on their parents (G1). Some 25 years later, the researchers examined state and federal criminal records for evidence of arrests in the G2 cohort, including arrests for violent crime. Children who had been physically abused were significantly more likely than children from nonviolent families to have been arrested as a juvenile, but not by much—21 percent compared to 14 percent of matched controls.2
By the mid-1990s the G2 participants were on average 29 years old, with children of their own, giving Widom and her team the rare opportunity to study a broad range of outcomes for both groups. After another followup that ended in 2010, when the G2 cohort was on average 51 years old and the G3 offspring were interviewed, the researchers confirmed that they found “little evidence of the intergenerational transmission of physical abuse.”3
The researchers also busted another myth, finding no support for the widespread belief that being sexually molested in childhood increases the unique risk of becoming an adult sex offender.4 This finding has been replicated in other large-scale studies. For example, an Australian team recently found “no specific association between sexual abuse and sexual offending in a birth cohort of 38,282 males with a maltreatment history and/or at least one official offense.” Only 3 percent of the sexually abused boys had become adult sexual offenders, and, they report, “contrary to findings typically reported in retrospective clinical studies,” only 4 percent of adult sexual offenders had a confirmed history of sexual abuse.5
As with so many issues on which people are inclined to take sides, this question invites us to think critically about the origins and consequences of child abuse. It’s easy to fall into the retrospective fallacy that if event A precedes outcome B, A must have caused B. Sigmund Freud himself, the most famous purveyor of this fallacy, knew its limits: “So long as we trace the development from its final stage backward,” he wrote, “the connection appears continuous, and we feel we have gained an insight which is completely satisfactory or even exhaustive. But if we proceed the reverse way [starting at the beginning and trying to predict the outcome], then we no longer get the impression of an inevitable sequence of events.”
What breaks that “inevitable sequence”? Psychological scientists have been identifying the possible reasons that the majority of children manage to break out of the cycle of abuse. Some children are genetically predisposed to be easygoing, even under conditions of great hardship. Others have gotten love and attention from siblings, friends, extended family members, or other caring adults. Others have had experiences outside the family—in school, athletics, music—that gave them feelings of competence and self-efficacy. And some have benefitted from an unpredictable bolt of luck, like my student’s being rescued by his math teacher.
Of course, any humane society should have programs in place to help physically abused and neglected children. But research like Widom’s shows why child-protection workers, teachers, and parents also need to resist treating these children as if they are trapped for life, certain that they know any given child’s future. For their part, clinicians who work with adult male sex offenders or violent criminals should be aware that these men have not necessarily been sexually or physically abused in childhood—and that sexual abuse is not a sufficient explanation for their offending. Widom hopes her findings will put a dent in the practice of stigmatizing abused and molested children, or even barring them from schools, again because of the mistaken belief in what “they will do” in the future. That pessimistic belief adds to the burdens of harm they have already endured. She plans to continue her research on the lifelong trajectory of abuse, the better to understand who succumbs and who transcends.
About the Author
Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). She writes “The Gadfly” column quarterly in Skeptic magazine.
- West, Melissa O. and Ronald J. Prinz. 1987. “Parental Alcoholism and Childhood Psychopathology.” Psychological Bulletin, 102, 204–218.
- Maxfield,MichaelG. and CathyS. Widom. 1996. “The Cycle of Violence: Revisited Six Years Later.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 150, 390–395.
- Widom, Cathy S., Sally J. Czaja, and Kimberly A. DuMont. 2015, March. “Intergenerational Transmission of Child Abuse and Neglect: Real or Detection Bias?” Science, 347,1480–1484.
- Widom, Cathy S. and Christina Massey. 2015. “A Prospective Examination of Whether Childhood Sexual Abuse Predicts Subsequent Sexual Offending.” JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(1):e143357 http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3357.
- Leach, Chelsea, Anna Stewart, and Stephen Smallbone. 2015. “Testing the Sexually Abused-Sexual Abuser Hypothesis: A Prospective Longitudinal Birth Cohort Study.” Child Abuse & Neglect, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.024.