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How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”?

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.”

Skeptic magazine 21.2

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.2 (2016)

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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. END

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.

References
  1. West, Melissa O. and Ronald J. Prinz. 1987. “Parental Alcoholism and Childhood Psychopathology.” Psychological Bulletin, 102, 204–218.
  2. Maxfield,MichaelG. and CathyS. Widom. 1996. “The Cycle of Violence: Revisited Six Years Later.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 150, 390–395.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

15 Comments

  1. Jim Bobreski says:

    Abuse comes in many forms. It can be simple neglect, Mommy liked you best, then to stuff like the mother of Sybil. Abused people tend to assimulate abuse rather cause. In other words they are attracted to it. Subconsciecely that is. They don’t know a better life because this is the life they know. There in lies the true abuse cycle.

    • Dena says:

      Jim, I was just wondering if you have any further information about children who are raised by narcissistic parents. This pathology seems to follow this pattern as well. There is a lot of information on the web about this topic but mostly it seems to be people that have been damaged by narcissists who are trying to heal themselves.
      Thanks.

  2. Steve C says:

    I think we can ascribe some blame to writers and journalists for the fallacy of the abuse cycle (and the concept of “closure” as well).

    However, my mind keeps going back to the author’s description of the court session with the social worker. Law as employed in the courtroom is a strange and convoluted thing. TV and film dramas regularly misrepresent court proceedings because true law interpretations by judges is, well… boring and confusing, to be frank. In fact, the last place you’ll find “real courtroom action” is on a screen.

    That being said, I believe that the social worker was trying to hammer the “cycle of abuse” point was because he or she was privy to information that was not allowed into evidence. To clarify: the mother’s childhood had been allowed as testimony for whatever reason, thus the social worker was allowed to use that as a springboard for his or her reason for rejection of custody and visitation. Meanwhile, the real reason for the social worker’s perceived love of pop psychology was based upon heresy or prejudicial evidence and thus not allowed by the judge. In court, sometimes you’re forced to take what you can get. My opinion is that this was the case here as well.

    • keith johnson says:

      In child welfare cases rules regarding evidence are different from criminal cases. The social worker has legal responsibility to give a full account​ of why they are making a recommendation. So evidence like hearsey can be submitted into the record for the judge to consider. Reasonable doubt is not the standard of “proof” like it is for criminal cases. So it would be unethical and and very likely illegal for this worker to leave out important information that would influence the judges ruling. Especially if they were testifying(whole truth standard). Obviously we don’t know but based on the information in this article but it is doubtful the judge would terminate visits and or parental rights based solely on this information. There maybe slightly different statues state to state but the principles are generally the same.

      Retired CPS social worker, California.

    • Foxtrot says:

      It’s amazing to me how people attack the author of this article. Some even claim the author raises a straw man. What people seem not to notice is their own biases when describing how wrong the author is. It is a fact that social sciences have perpetuated the cycle of abuse idea. I am a trained counselor with a graduate degree as well. It is also a fact that there are well over 250 different schools of thought on human behavior. Most are not rooted in the scientific method. The author of this article is whittling down a lot of research into a coherent article to give us food for thought. That is all. It should not create defensiveness or a need to attack the premise. It should however spur use on to make sure we and other professionals are not duped by anecdotal evidence which is exactly what the author is describing.

      I work in the courts and have for 21 years. I know how easy it is for people to propagate junk science. For decades the courts have sent domestic violence abusers to anger management as a means to treat their violent behavior. This is so wrong, but try arguing that with a judge or prosecutor who’s required this for the offender for 20 or more years. Anger is not the violent person’s problem, violence is. Its finally changing but only because of real science and economics.

      The article is excellent and helps dispel the myth that abused children become abusers. That is the simple and direct take away.

  3. brad tittle says:

    This points to a common failure in our scientific system. It is not just psychology where this stuff happens.

    We study one side of the equation thinking that it will give a good look at the other side. Smoking causes lung cancer! Smoking also calms nerves. Studying death is useful. So is studying life. In addition to finding out why those smokers died, we should also find out why the other smokers (and they are still out there in mass) are living so well. Not all of them live well. But a shocking number do.

    Getting things published requires getting the attention of the editors. Putting boring stuff into the literature like “Children are resilient and manage to survive just about anything” does not make for a striking headline.

    The real science is on the other side. It is not the magnificent achievements of the giants that lets us look so far, it is the rubble of the failures. The thing is, we tend to just remember the success.

    • Jim Bowron says:

      The better statement regarding smoking is not that almost everyone who smokes will get lung cancer, but that almost everyone who has lung cancer was a smoker. Clearly you can take generalizations too far.

  4. Rob Bligh says:

    JAMA Pediatrics | Special Communication
    Capitalizing on Advances in Science to Reduce
    the Health Consequences of Early Childhood Adversity
    Jack P. Shonkoff, MD

    Advances in biology are providing deeper insights into how early experiences are built into the body with lasting effects on learning, behavior, and health. Numerous evaluations of interventions for young children facing adversity have demonstrated multiple, positive effects but they have been highly variable and difficult to sustain or scale. New research on plasticity and critical periods in development, increasing understanding of how gene-environment interaction affects variation in stress susceptibility and resilience, and the emerging availability of measures of toxic stress effects that are sensitive to intervention provide much-needed fuel for science-informed innovation in the early childhood arena. This growing knowledge base suggests 4 shifts in thinking about policy and practice: (1) early experiences affect lifelong health, not just learning; (2) healthy brain development requires protection from toxic stress, not just enrichment; (3) achieving breakthrough outcomes for young children facing adversity requires supporting the adults who care for them to transform their own lives; and (4) more effective interventions are needed in the prenatal period and first 3 years after birth for the most disadvantaged children and families. The time has come to leverage 21st-century science to catalyze the design, testing, and scaling of more powerful approaches for reducing lifelong disease by mitigating the effects of early adversity.

    JAMA Pediatr. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.1559
    Published online August 22, 2016.

  5. John Whitton says:

    My parents were alcoholics and my neighbors were abusive insolent false witnesses of my good deeds as I retained my honors in high school to be a scholar with good Character. My supports were need based dysfunction probes with leftist methods that held me back. It has been laughable watching these people not understand that kids have a choice to keep their cool. Good article!

  6. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    First, I want to express my gratitude to Skeptic for providing another worthwhile article. I’ve long felt that Skeptics groups should be actively engaged in popularizing good science (also, I hope most Skeptics are also Citizen Scientists – go look up projects in your field of interest!)

    Second, I want to comment on a couple of the comments: speculating on the intentions and secret knowledge of that social worker really goes against the reasoning methodology of skeptics. In the absence of evidence, it is best to refrain from forming any opinions… if you must form an opinion always be mindful of – and acknowledge its speculative nature.

    Also to Mr Tittle above, regarding the failure of the scientific system, although there is a bit of merit to his concern, all such concerns fall under the umbrella of: Remember that people do science – so it is susceptible to the failings of human nature… in the short term. Eventually, the Truth will Out – even if it takes a generation or two to get on the Right Track. How long has the community held the position of the cycle of abuse before research showed the errors of that line of thinking? Be patient, we’re working on it.

  7. Michael Morad-McCoy says:

    While I agree with the major point of Ms. Tavris’s article, it seems she is tilting at a straw man. Since I received my first psychology training almost 35 years ago, I have *never* heard anyone in the field make the claim Ms. Tavris says is common: “The abused are destined to abuse.” In fact, my teachers would pointedly state: “While most abusers might themselves have been abused, this does NOT mean those abused will become abusers. In fact, it is clear that an overwhelming majority of those abused will NOT become abusers.” This has been, at least in my experience, common knowledge in the field for decades.

  8. bzPhD says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking read.

    Our sample bias problem (we only see the ones who struggle the most) colors everything. Including our optimism about the likelihood of good outcome (the successes stop coming).
    I am constantly humbled by what our clients have been through and how hard they have worked to create the best life they can.

    Resilience is astonishing. And, resilience is one of the most powerful themes in literature (books, poems, movies, songs .. send me your favorite examples).

    Some thoughts:
    a) The author notes: “….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. …”
    So the idea of negative impacts is clearly supported. That is why we care about ACE. It is clinically predictive of a higher rate of future distress.
    What is at question is “Which behaviors that they have experienced are survivors at measurably higher risk to perpetuate?”

    b) And the author also notes: “…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….”
    Just to be clear, although the author skims over it, that is a 50% increase in arrest rate as a juvenile. Or a 1.5 risk ratio. Very big in the behavioral science world.

    The author attacks a “straw man”. As a “hook” for the article (to increase clicks?) the author uses an antidotal account: “…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….”

    I am pretty sure that I have never heard any psychologist or social worker say that all abuse survivors become abusers. And, if I had I might have laughed out loud, assuming it was a joke. Because, if all abused kids became abusers, then by now in the history of humans, virtually everyone would be a child abuser. It is like if a new dominant gene entered the population (assuming no reproductive costs), eventually the recessive gene (in this analogy, being a non-abuser) would almost never be expressed.

    And, I have never heard any psychologist or social worker say, “all abusers were abused”, either.

    The question was never “Do they all become abusers”. It is “What is the added risk of becoming an abuser if one has been abused.” I don’t know the answer. Neither does the author.

    Later in the article the author reports on a study showing that “..Only 3 percent of the sexually abused boys had become adult sexual offenders…” This number begs for a comparison. “What % of boys who had not been sexually abused become adult sexual offenders?”. The author does not notice this need and is silent on the topic.

    In reading through the comments, # 7 has some of the same thoughts I do.

    I have been tempted to think that sexual abuse of a girl is associated with adolescent and adult substance use disorders. Because almost whenever I have asked, women I have treated who have a substance use disorder do report a hx of sexual trauma. But, it is totally NOT true that sexual abuse causes substance use disorders in women. Although it may increase the odds. I don’t know.

    I really liked reading the article.

    Seems like we need to keep our blinders off, even when reading an author who suggests they are trying to remove our blinders.

    And, of course, I could be completely wrong in everything I said.

    Mahalo,
    Bill

  9. Kathryn Kemp says:

    One case does not prove anything, but I want to say that my mother experienced abandonment, and emotional and physical abuse. It marked her personality in many ways, but she never mistreated me. Indeed, she did everything in her power to be a good mother. I was never subjected to physical punishment but rather, she would talk with me about what I had done wrong and how I could be a better person. I feel deep gratitude for her love and help.

  10. Helen says:

    Defence lawyers advice predator child sex offenders to describe their ‘troubled’ childhood and their sex abuse as a child saying it created a ‘pattern of behaviour’ that their sex drive is diverted by their experiences, and that they ‘can’t help themselves’, pleading for leniency.
    This is a ploy played out every day and much commented upon in the media, because it is not allowed to report about the victim unless they have given permission, which is rare. Therefore the news reports have this bias of gravitas of stories from the defendent trotted out for every sensational case with a conviction.
    The judges summing up usually includes their consideration of this pleading by the defendent, which is then given the status of legal ‘fact’.
    The statistics from the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse found that by far the largest group of child sex abusers in Australia were religious clergy.

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