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Safe, stable relationships break the cycle of abuse

Mothers who experienced severe maltreatment in their childhood are up to five times more likely to have a child who was physically maltreated. However, a study led by King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) has shown that mothers who have experienced abuse and maltreatment as children are less likely to have children themselves who are abused if they develop safe, supportive relationships as adults.

The study was done in collaboration between researchers at King’s IoP and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in the USA, whose aim is to identify ways in which to improve the lives of children and families by preventing violence and promoting health and well-being.

The authors conducted a study on over 1,000 mothers in the United Kingdom, as part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study. They ascertained mothers’ childhood history of maltreatment during private interviews and they collected prospective reports of children’s experience of physical maltreatment repeatedly over a period of 12 years as part of the interviews. 

Among mothers who reported being the victim of severe maltreatment during their childhood, 56% had a child who also experienced maltreatment. However, 44% had children who escaped maltreatment. 

The authors identified factors that could help break the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next. They found that supportive and trusting relationships with intimate partners, high levels of maternal warmth towards children, and low levels of partner violence between adults distinguished families in which both mothers and children had experienced maltreatment versus families in which mothers but not children experienced maltreatment.

By exploring the behaviours and patterns that helped to break the cycle of abuse, the study could help inform policies which re-enforce these positive changes in families and minimise the risk of perpetuating negative patterns of behaviour.

Dr Louise Arseneault from the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, and senior author of the study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health said: “We set up this study to identify factors that could help mothers with a history of childhood abuse, which in turn could prevent future abuse of children. Assisting mothers in establishing and developing stable and nurturing relationships with their children and with other adults could help them break the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next and prevent further cases of child maltreatment.”

The E-RISK study is part of a wide collaboration between the CDC and four important longitudinal studies on intergenerational patterns of violence. E-RISK is the only one based outside the USA (the other three are the Family Transitions Project, the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, and the Rochester Youth Development/Intergenerational Study).

Paper reference: Jaffee, S. et al. 'Safe, stable, nurturing relationships break the intergenerational cycle of abuse: a prospective nationally representative cohort of children in the United Kingdom.' Journal of Adolescent Health doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.04.007

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