As noted in a recent Science Magazine article, the theory that child abuse victims are more likely to perpetrate abuse as adults is commonly referred to as the “cycle of violence.” The article describes a recently completed longitudinal study that found little evidence to substantiate this theory when it comes to physical abuse, but it did find that neglect or sexual abuse victimization may be passed from one generation to the next.
Researchers began the study in 1986, and over nearly two decades, they tracked down over 900 adults who were victimized as children in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based on interviews and child support services court documents, the researchers found little correlation between the adults who were physically abused as children and the likelihood, compared to the study’s control group, that they would physically abuse their own children. However, the researchers also found that the adults who were sexually abused, or neglected, as children were twice as likely to have done so with their offspring, compared to the control group.
In another article about the study in U.S. News and World Report, the study’s lead researcher, John Jay School of Criminology professor Cathy Spatz Widom, noted that the results were surprising and suggested that previous studies examining the cycle often looked at the childhood histories of parents accused of abuse and neglect. She explained, “The problem there is, you miss the parents who were abused but did not go on to have these issues.”
Widom’s findings are not conclusive, however, and some experts, such as Duke University psychology professor Kenneth Dodge, question the findings related to physical abuse. In the Science article, Dodge notes that physical abuse is often difficult to document, and child protective services may instead just document neglect when they suspect physical abuse.
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