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Preventing the(violent)Child Abuse Cycle:

This paper summarizes the causes and adult effects of

child abuse and suggests ways to prevent the cycle.

The complex interrelated issues of child abuse and future adult repetition of childhood patterns is one of society’s largely unsolved problems. The concept of child abuse is a relatively new idea, emerging about one hundred years ago, and only recently has child abuse been identified as a source of other social problems with enormous institutional costs—legal, medical, educational, criminological, and in terms of perpetuation of dysfunctional parenting patterns (Schwartz, 2000, p.51). It is the purpose of this paper to provide an overview of some of the causes and effects of child abuse and to present possible preventative measures.

The further one goes back into history, the worse the incidence of child abuse. Historically, children have been beaten, abandoned, terrorized, abused, and murdered. Children have endured the outrage of child labor, incest, pornography, and prostitution (Schwartz, 2000, p.52). In the Old Testament there are more than 2,000 references to children, most of them citing child sacrifice, stonings, beatings, or strict obedience toward parents. Society has recognized these acts of aggression /violence, making them illegal, but still there lingers ambivalence and social counterforces of denial, minimization, and incredulity. There is a tendency still to blame the victim and focus on investigation and therapy rather than prevention of the problems within the larger societal context

The effects of child abuse are myriad and far-reaching. A person who has been sexually abused, especially if the offender was a close relative, carries into adulthood a great deal of confusion and mistrust, finding it difficult to form normal, close, loving relationships. The perpetrators of this type of abuse are skilled at silencing and blaming the victim, creating adult victims who are dissociative and frightened persons (Schwartz, 2000, p.53). Judges and lawyers are not necessarily educated on these issues and the media tends to sensationalize documented cases of false allegations, making the legal system a primitive place for a child to seek protection and help. At the utmost darker regions of human behavior are ritual abusers who may carry on normal everyday lifestyles during the day and during the evenings torture their children, as did one patient’s father who “preached on fundamentalist Christian television during the day and engineered satanic brutality in the evenings to rid his daughter of demonic possession” (Schwartz, 2000, p.73). Other adult survivors of ritual abuse have named teachers, school officials, physicians, the clergy, and the police as perpetuators of such atrocities. In one case a father who was a physician injected his victims with chemical agents to ensure their confusion, compliance and silence (Schwartz, 2000, p.73).

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Adult survivors of sexual abuse display any of the following symptoms: incomplete or confused memories, a split reality (a result of having to live with an abuser that society viewed as an upstanding citizen), a feeling of being different from others, feeling stigmatized socially (especially when others say they should just get over it), an inability to forgive the abuser while living in a society that romanticizes forgiveness, unusual sensitivity and emotional vulnerability, and a history of acting out with negative effects in terms of vocational, financial, medical, and interpersonal functioning (Schwartz, 2000, p.34). Unfortunately this kind of trauma-ridden person tends to attract abusive partners in adulthood and the cycle continues.

Children who are sexually abused sometimes have difficulty having their experience validated by the adult world (Jones, 1991, p.31). The child may feel confusion about who is responsible and who is to blame, carrying that confusion into adult years. Jones found in her work at Cardiff that families that harbor abuse and abusers tend to cling together very closely, and therapy may help individual members to become more autonomous. Adults who have been abused as children may carry lingering effects of pain, confusion, shame, guilt, and the effects of those emotions on other aspects of their lives and relationships (Jones, 1991, ix). It is only in recent years that professional material has become available to assist with adults who were abused as children. There is a prevailing tendency to label such persons in categories, sometimes perpetuating the victim, or sick self-concept. Jones would advocate treating each person as an individual, working with them to validate their childhood experience and understand it in the context of the entire family dynamic. One tenet she is adamant about is that the client understands that young children are never to blame for the abuse (Jones, 1991, p.5). These situations are fraught with societal uncomfortable overtones. They are often dealt with as legal cases, and the legal system is at times insensitive and without specific knowledge of childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse. According to Jones, physical abuse of children leaves many of the same scars as sexual abuse.

The multifaceted problem of abuse links with many aspects of health and parenting with ramifications in education, social skill, work, and the ability to form healthy relationships with other adults and one’s own children. For example research indicates that a mother’s smoking behavior during a pregnancy can be a factor in the child’s developing future learning problems. Raymond reports that diminished oxygen and blood flow to the baby, as well as the exposure to the chemicals in cigarettes, can increase the risk of learning disabilities, future childhood behavior problems, and generally slower progress in school (Raymond, p.2). When mothers smoke (which could be conceived as an early type of child abuse) there are greater possibilities for pregnancy complications, such as a tubal pregnancy or having a baby of low birth weight. These early handicaps have consequences for the child and that child’s children.

Research shows links between dysfunctional families and learning difficulties such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, creating long-lasting handicaps in adult life. It is the contention of Strydom that the underlying cause of dyslexia and its rampant increase in recent years is because parents no longer follow the traditional methods of teaching children basic skills at home, giving them over to the teachers, as in recent decades parents have been unduly cautioned about making mistakes in rearing their children. During past times parents understood that it was their task to teach the child the basics of literacy and life, and to lovingly take care of their children at home. Families read together in the evening, and children had years of exposure to the parents’ example and practical help before even going to school. Such traditional parents intuitively understood that there were a certain number of basic skills that children had to learn before they could successfully get along in life. Now it seems that no one remembers what those skills are and furthermore have no idea how to teach them, to parents, teachers, or to children (Strydom, p.3). Strydom does not subscribe to the medical model of difficulties in parenting and resulting child behavioral problems.

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Strydom believes since the education system has taken over the work that fathers and mothers did for many generations, the “first few rungs of the learning ladder had been sawn off,” and the result is dyslexia, learning disabilities, brain dysfunctions, and a host of other disorders and syndromes, including faulty relationships with others, leading to unsuccessful marriages and child abuse. This explanation for learning and behavioral problems would contend that the causes are societal and cultural, that children watch television instead of read books and that family lifestyles do not include the components of spending time together that were present in past generations. That teaching in the home of the grandparents’ and parents’ generation took place with the understanding that the parent had certain responsibilities in connection with the child’s rearing and the teacher would take over at a later point during the process (Strydom, p.3). Somehow parents and teachers have lost thus cultural wisdom, creating a multiplicity of dyslexics who are handicapped in their schooling and later life relationships.

In like manner, parental absence from the home due to abandonment, divorce, or a cold manner in relating to the children creates adults who are uncertain about their ability to get along in the world. Studies show that paternal absence is especially harmful for girls. In order to relate well at the adult level, to know how to function in work and at home, the young girl needs a warm, present father.

Parental warmth is also an important factor in the young girl’s ability to reason morally, another indication that if the father is too busy or emotionally absent, the effect will be similar to that of a physically absent father (Speicher, 1994, p.625). Apparently being able to reason morally in a social context requires exposure to a wide range of situations and exposure to complex moral arguments. Children without that type of family context simply do not know the inner or outer language for solving problems within groups or with the opposite sex in later years. The girls who grow up without an accessible father tend to be lacking in a moral compass that helps them know what is right for themselves and others in a relationship context. This is not to say that they are immoral in a sinful or negative sense but that they simply lack the wider experience necessary to develop a complex moral framework for relating to others. This lack has relationship consequences later in life. This type of person is likely to repeat the same behaviors with her own children.

There are also relationships between drug use during pregnancy, drug use in the parental home and future behaviors of the children. Glantz and Weinberg believe that certain factors cause experimentation with drugs, and other even different factors cause drug use to the degree of abuse and that the risk factors for drug use lie more in the social realm, the effects of peer groups and the presence of alcohol and drug use in the family of origin (Glantz and Weinberg, 1999, p.293).. There may be biological factors, and there may be psychological factors. It is like a large puzzle with some of the pieces lost or misplaced under the table.

There are many patterns to child abuse and the link with drugs is merely one arm of the octopus. One finds patterns that lead to other patterns, creating multiple determinants with no single cause. Temperament and genetics possibly play a part. The environment includes such risks as the style of the parent, social attitudes, sanctions for drug use, and the sheer availability of drugs. The presence or absence of the parent could impact the child’s direction (Glantz & Weinberg, 1999, p.290). If the parent is in jail with drug convictions, this could be a factor in the direction of the child’s development. These researchers point out that what could be an important influence at one stage of a child’s life might not have impact at another stage (Glantz & Weinberg, 1999, p.291). Homes where drugs are used tend to be chaotic and unstable, leaving the child vulnerable to future confusion in life and vulnerable to repeating the weaknesses of the home during the formative years. If there was financial instability, as is often the case in drug-addicted homes, the child may repeat that. If there was child abuse and violence, that pattern may recur. Drug involved parents tend to exhibit erratic and inconsistent behavior, making it difficult for the child to know what is expected.

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McCullough and Scherman also link the family of origin with a mother’s potential for child abuse. In their study young adolescent mothers were surveyed on traits of family cohesion, a quality found to be related to parenting behavior. The young mothers who were low on those scores were thought to be more vulnerable to becoming abusive to their children (McCullough and Scherman, 1998, p.375). Adolescent pregnancies and child abuse are closely related as when young women become mothers, they are faced with the challenge of providing for their children when they are scarcely beyond childhood themselves. These factors lead to frustration, anger, helplessness, and possibly striking out at the next generation of children. Further complications are that early pregnancies often mean dropping out of school and very limited work and financial opportunities, exacerbating the limited environment for the new child (McCullough and Scherman, 1998, p.375). There are often developmental delays in these children, and they are more at risk for a variety of problems.

Research shows that adolescent parents are less likely to complete high school, attend college, find stable employment, marry, or be self-supporting than are those who have children later in their lives (McCullough and Scherman, 1998, p.375). Having a teenaged mother has been shown to be associated with behavioral problems in middle adolescence. Stress is a factor in these relationships and newly formed families. Young girls who come from troubled homes themselves have not learned coping skills, open communication among family members and effective problem-solving skills. Female adolescents who perceive the family context as free of guilt, retribution, and threats of abandonment are more likely to be able to assume personal responsibility for themselves. Anger and mistrust within the family creates an adolescent and young parent who lacks a positive self-concept, the type of mother who is apt to strike out at an innocent child.

Studies indicate that violence in the home is more likely to occur when the male abuser is unemployed (Tauchen and Dryden, 1995). The converse is also true—employed men are less likely to beat their partners. Children learn from the example that is present in their own home, and if they witness physical violence, it is likely to occur in their own lives, towards partners or children. There also is the simple danger of the child being injured when violence occurs between parents. Physical violence is detrimental to the child on several levels—personal insecurity, setting a bad role model for future adult behavior, and creating a propensity towards using violence for problem-solving instead of other more positive coping behaviors. In terms of stopping domestic violence, the Tauchen and Dryden study found that arrest was the best deterrent to future violent behavior in the home (Tauchen and Dryden, 1995, p.417). The domestic violence cycle is often confusing for the woman, as the spouse does not act that way all the time and there may be genuine love between the two partners.

Gilbert presents the concept that child maltreatment is perceived through a cultural filter. This can be seen in the shifting definition of child abuse during the past century. What were acceptable parental rights of control over the child at the beginning of the 20th century is now possibly illegal, at least morally reprehensible. Studies reveal that degrees of child abuse vary according to race. For example research indicates that a bruise inflicted by a parent on a nine-year-old was not considered physical abuse by 90 percent of the Vietnamese sampled, although it was for all of the Cambodians in the study (Gilbert, 1997, p.10). During past centuries, parents were believed to have the right of ownership of children, as if they were property. Gradually child cruelty came to societal attention and it was largely the churches and religious welfare organizations that oversaw such cases. At the present time sanctions against child abuse occur within the legal and court structure with some involvement of the medical community.

There has been a growth of public regulation in the field, and public workers often are mandated by law to report suspected cases of child abuse. In the U.S. in the state of California, for example, there are very clear and strict guidelines for suspected abuse noted by licensed clinical social workers, counselors, licensed nurses, dental hygienists, surgeons, podiatrists, chiropractors, teachers, foster parents, group home personnel, police and county probation workers, and people who develop photographic films (Gilbert, 1997, p.19). These laws are efforts to stop the chain of abuse, even if the child has to be removed from the home and placed in foster care. The emphasis in this type of prevention is investigation and help for the abused child. Help and support for the parents and remediation of the underlying causes seems to not be a focus of child protective services.

The UK has demonstrated more interest in children than the US. By the early 1950s, UK children’s officers in state-organized Children’s Departments were given powers to intervene in cases where abused children needed care and protection (Landsberg and Wattam, 2001, p.111). In the 1960s there emerged in the UK an impetus towards prevention of violence against children with more vigorous governmental actions against child abuse. Debates continue about whether child abuse is a preventable problem and what the solution should be.

In the UK the case of Maria Colwell and her stepfather was a landmark in British responses to violence against children. The Public Inquiry in the case led to an expansion of the child protection system that still exists today (Landsberg and Wattam, 2001, p.111). As a part of that new system, Area Child Protection Committees were established to allow managers in health, education, criminal justice and childcare agencies to plan and cooperate with their child protection practices, sometimes meeting and sharing information at the case level. A part of the new system is a register of the names of children who have been or were thought to be at risk of abuse. As in the US, the approach is primarily forensic or investigative, although when compared with the US, the UK approach to child abuse prevention is more collaborative with a higher level of abuse becoming necessary before it becomes a legal matter. The researchers indicate that support is needed for the families, and that more research needs to be done to find out the factors in abuse. Techniques need to be developed which spot at risk families and children and give them the help they need before child abuse occurs.

Gill and Westman take a larger, more comprehensive view of the problems of child abuse and the generational repetition. They believe that the quality of life for children in western society has declined in recent decades, and the damage to the children creates further educational, health, safety, and economic problems for society as a whole (Gill and Westman, 1994, p.1). Judges, lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals are frustrated in their efforts to deal with the results of severely incompetent parenting.

One aspect of parenting that is of supreme importance is the ability to form affectionate attachment bonds with others. Children need this from the early days of life. Without it they die. The failure of individuals to form affectionate bonds has dire consequences for the children of such parents and the society they live in as adults. One magistrate feels that the problems need to be dealt with much earlier than is now the case. Magistrate Sybil Eyenck stated, “My own personal view, as a magistrate, is that our society intervenes far too late in the process of antisocial behavior as this develops in children. It is much easier, and more viable, to make rules in the home and at school and enforce these, than to try rehabilitation programs on adults whose lives have been ruined by society’s unwillingness to get involved until it is too late for the life habit of crime to be reversed” (Gill and Westman, 1994, p.53).

Unfortunately popular views of parenting advocate that parents do what they wish with an emphasis on the privacy of family life. It seems a travesty that there is little recognition of the connection between today’s social problems and incompetent parenting, yet all of the various dysfunctions described in earlier paragraphs, the byroads of smoking, drug abuse, early pregnancy, attention deficit disorder, and dyslexia, have a component of childhood neglect or abuse, and a likelihood of repetition of the pattern, simply from not knowing any differently. Alcohol would be another component, one not treated extensively in this paper.

Gill and Westman advocate a process by which parents earn the right to have children. It does seem odd that there are more preparations and precautions necessary for adapting a pet from the humane shelter than there are to have a child. A rigorous training process would teach prospective parents the skills necessary to maintain a household and to adequately take care of children. Some ministers who marry couples require that the two undergo a series of counseling sessions before the wedding. The same could be required of parents, a rigorous educational program in communication, anger management, financial planning, and child development before the license would be granted.

One of the obstacles to the solving of the child abuse problem is that society does not adequately value the process of parenting. It is not paid work, and people tend to value what earns a salary. The result is children with confused self-concepts who are unable to function in society, at least beyond a minimal level. It seems that society is set up in such a way now that anyone feels entitled to have children and expect the government to help with it if the parent did not make adequate preparations for the maintenance of the home and child.

These deficits create severe deficits of character, creating people who do not have the basic building blocks of character that are essential to a democratic way of life—honesty, self-control, and fidelity. These qualities are learned in the home, where there are those first affectionate attachment bonds (Gill and Westman, 1994, p.277). Programs in school that teach children, before they mate, the rudiments of keeping house and caring for something other than themselves are helpful in laying intelligent groundwork for later parenting. Some innovative programs have had children take care of an egg for a week or more, carrying it everywhere, and ensuring its safety in order to convey the concept of 24-hour vigilance and care for a child. Other programs set up mock marriages between teenagers and teach them how to plan money and solve practical problems such as finding a job, budgeting for furniture, and planning for the expenses of children, before actual marriages and children occur. Such programs may seem unromantic, but they do help children learn some of the realities of responsible adult life and parenthood.

Of the material researched for this article, a commonality appeared as a thread throughout many of the articles—the link between unemployment or low income and child abuse in the home. The unemployment may be a symptom rather than a cause, but even so, it is something tangible that can be alleviated with skills education and practical problems to get men working. Unemployed women are not nearly so apt to abuse their children as are unemployed men. It seems that when the core of manhood is struck impotent in the world, the man has to strike out in some way. A focus on government and social service programs to alleviate this one difficulty would help immeasurably.

The problem of repeating cycles of child abuse is a large, complex challenge with a myriad of components. Even the smaller components—poverty, lack of education, poor health, addiction, mental illness, and poor examples in the childhood home—have been as yet virtually unsolvable by the resources of society at the present time. Drastic solutions such as mandated vasectomies or tubal ligations unless one has a pristine character and goes through the required preparation seem like a fascist state. However other countries, such as China, have dramatically different regulations regarding childbearing. The state gives permission for each couple to have one child. It is a public matter, regulated by the government. Such alien concepts go against the grain of western thought, but something that dramatic may be required, in conjunction with focused, serious education on what is required to raise children. The abuse problem is cyclical, and in order for child abuse to stop, there has to be a clear and certain break in the cycle.


Gilbert, N. (1997). Combating child abuse: International perspectives and trends. Oxford.

Gill, C.D. and Westman, J.C. (1994). Licensing parents: Can we prevent child abuse and

neglect? Perseus Books.

Glantz, M.D., Weinberg, N.Z. (1999). Child psychopathology risk factors for drug abuse

overview. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28: 293-295.

Jones, E. (1991). Working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Karnac Books.

Landsberg, G., and Wattam, C. (2001). Differing approaches to combating child abuse: United

States vs. United Kingdom. Journal of International Affairs, 55, 111.

McCullough, M., and Scherman, A. (1998). Family of origin interaction and adolescent

mothers’ potential for child abuse. Adolescence, 33, 375.

Raymond, L.L. (n.d.). Smoking in pregnancy. Women’s Health Associates of Upper Michigan,

Retrieved on June 24, 2003, from http://www.womenshealthassociates.com/pregnancy

Schwartz, H.L. (2000). Dialogues with forgotten voices: Relational perspectives on child abuse

Trauma and treatment of dissociative disorders. Basic Books.

Speicher, B. (1994, Sep). Family patterns of moral judgment during adolescence and early

adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 30(5), 624-632.

Strydom, J. (n.d.). What is dyslexia really? Dyslexia Online.

Retrieved March 2, 2004, from http://www.audiblox2000.com/dyslexia

Tauchen, H., and Witte, A.D. (1995). The dynamics of domestic violence. American Economic

Review, 85, 417

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