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Why Abusive Parents Maltreat and How To Break The Cycle Of Abuse

| Risk Factors That Cause Parents To Abuse | Effects Of Abuse (Statistics) | Protective Factors | How To Break The Cycle |

What Is Child Abuse?

Abuse from parents can take many forms. There are times when it is obvious and other times when it is difficult to detect.

The five types of abuse are physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and medical neglect​1​.

Physical abuse is any nonaccidental injury and physical harm inflicted on a child.

Emotional abuse is psychological maltreatment that conveys to a child that they are worthless, flawed, unwanted, and unworthy of attention and love. Psychological abuse includes constant criticism, verbal abuse, and rejection.

Sexual abuse is involving a child in sexual activity.

Neglect occurs when a caretaker fails to provide adequate care for a child, resulting in actual or potential harm. It is the most common type of child abuse.

Medical neglect is a form of abuse that happens when treatment recommendations made for a child are not followed leading to actual or potential harm.

brother hugs little girl while father hits mother in the shadow

Risk Factors That Cause Parents To Abuse

Researchers have discovered that despite the temptation to summarize child abuse as being caused by bad parents, there are actually several factors at play.

Essentially, abuse occurs when risk factors outweigh the protective factors​2​.

Intent attribution

Abusive parents tend to attribute the cause of their children’s negative behavior to the children’s temperament and their negative intent. They believe that their children behave badly on purpose to annoy, frustrate, or disobey them deliberately​3​.

The assumption that the behavior is the result of intentional negative intent can lead to parents’ anger and aggression.

Unrealistic expectations

Parents who are at high risk of abusing their children often report more difficult behaviors in their children. 

However, researchers have found that the children typically don’t behave in a more negative or non-compliant way than other children.

The parents simply have unrealistic expectations of their children who show developmentally appropriate behavior​4​.

When a child deviates from expected behaviors, parents’ frustration could lead to overreactions.

Rigid thinking

Abusive parents are usually rigid and inflexible in their thinking.

It is common for them to resort to coercive responses when faced with unexpected behavior in their children​5​.

Overreactive to emotions

Parents who use coercive disciplinary strategies, such as physical punishment, tend to be over-sensitive to their children’s emotions.

They can be overreactive even when the child has not yet engaged in defiant or resistant behavior.

For example, abusers have greater physiologic responses to children’s crying​6​.

Disciplinary belief

Those who abuse children are more likely to use coercive disciplinary methods and believe they are appropriate ways to discipline​7​.

Self-esteem and self-efficacy

Parents who are at risk of abuse toward children tend to have lower self-esteem and self-efficacy (the belief that they have effective parenting techniques). They tend to experience higher levels of stress, depression, self-blame, and social isolation​8​.

Lack of skills

Parents’ lack of skills also contributes to the possibility of abuse.

  • Lower ability to inhibit aggression
  • Lack of coping skills to manage stress
  • Less parenting skills to resolve conflict situations

Intergenerational transmission of childhood abuse

Parents who have experienced physical abuse during childhood are at increased risk for engaging in abusive parenting​9​.

Child characteristics

Some studies have found that child abuse is a result of three components: immediate environmental stress, parent’s personality traits, and the child’s characteristics that make them vulnerable to scapegoating.

Children with the following characteristics are more prone to be abused​10​:

  • Prematurity (born preterm)
  • Physical disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Difficult temperament
  • Single parenthood
  • Parents’ perceptions of the child as “different”

Environmental risk factors

  • Greater number of children in the household
  • Poverty​11​
  • Negative interactions at home outnumber positive exchanges 
  • Lack of social support
  • Internalized cultural influences that condone such parenting practice​12​

Effects Of Abuse (Statistics)

In 2003 there were 906,000 substantiated cases of child maltreatment in the United States (US Department of Health and Human Services 2005).

Victims of child maltreatment will suffer both short- and long-term consequences of abuse.

Abused children are more likely to suffer from attachment difficulties, cognitive impairment, developmental delays, emotion dysregulation, poor academic performance, behavioral issues, delinquency, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, phobia, self-harming behavior, suicidal attempts, and substance abuse.

Researchers have found that continuous abuse results in the shrinkage of memory, learning, and emotional regulation regions of the brain in adults​13​.

The economic burden of child maltreatment is also substantial.

Non-fatal child abuse costs on average $210,012 in 2010 dollars per victim. A child abuse death costs approximately $1,272,900, including 1,258,800 in lost productivity.

Approximately $585 billion is estimated to be the total burden in the United States​14​.

Protective Factors

Parents at high risk of abusing their children but do not are more likely to possess the following protective factors.

Long-term intimate stable relationship

Those who break the cycle of maltreatment are more likely to have a stable intimate relationship for a long time and have a secure home to raise their children​15​.

Emotional support

Additionally, they perceive having higher levels of social and emotional support, including psychotherapy​16​.

Stress, anxiety, and depression are less prevalent among high-risk parents who perceive to have high levels of social support.

Often, abusive families isolate themselves from the community, limiting their access to emotional and financial support. As a result, they have less exposure to alternative methods of parenting to deal with their challenges.

Financial solvency

In many families, money-related issues are the leading source of stress. 

Parents who are financially stable tend to have less stress in everyday life and are likely to be able to break the cycle successfully​17​.

How To Break The Cycle

Learning how to parent in a completely new way can be challenging. 

Some parents don’t know where to start. Others feel like they have tried everything and nothing works.

If you were abused as a child and want to break the cycle, here are the steps to take.

Take responsibility

The first step is acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility for changing the abusive behavior. This requires a great deal of courage. For that, I commend you.

Seek therapy if possible

If you can afford a counselor, seek their assistance. This is nothing to be ashamed of. People who reach out for help are only brave.

An experienced therapist can help you deal with unresolved feelings, heal childhood emotional scars, and provide emotional support.

A family therapist can also guide you through relationship issues.

Find social help

Get out to reconnect with your friends. Support from friends and family can help you overcome challenges.

Friends can provide a listening ear, offer advice, or just help take your mind off of whatever is causing you distress. 

If you don’t have many friends, try joining a club or activity group to meet new people.

Learn new parenting strategies

To handle your child’s behavioral problem differently, take parenting classes or learn about positive parenting skills.

Adopt a different mindset

It is the negative attribution of misbehavior, unrealistic expectations, and rigid beliefs about parenting that prevent many parents from adopting or learning new parenting methods.

Open-mindedness and psychological flexibility is the key to changing patterns and breaking the abusive cycle.

Meditate

Meditation helps you calm your nervous system and focus on being present in the moment. It is a great way to relax and manage anger​18​.

Final Thoughts on Child Abuse

The cycle of abuse can be broken. But you must commit to taking the necessary steps. 

If you put your mind to it, you, too, can raise healthy children and have a happy family.

Believe in yourself and don’t hesitate to seek help.

References

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    Dixon L, Browne K, Hamilton-Giachritsis C. Patterns of Risk and Protective Factors in the Intergenerational Cycle of Maltreatment. J Fam Viol. Published online November 24, 2008:111-122. doi:10.1007/s10896-008-9215-2
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    Paz Montes M, de Paúl J, Milner JS. Evaluations, attributions, affect, and disciplinary choices in mothers at high and low risk for child physical abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online August 2001:1015-1036. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(01)00254-x
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    Mash EJ, Johnston C. Parental perceptions of child behavior problems, parenting self-esteem, and mothers’ reported stress in younger and older hyperactive and normal children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online February 1983:86-99. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.51.1.86
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    Greene CA, Haisley L, Wallace C, Ford JD. Intergenerational effects of childhood maltreatment: A systematic review of the parenting practices of adult survivors of childhood abuse, neglect, and violence. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online August 2020:101891. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101891
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    Friedrich WN, Boriskin JA. The role of the child in abuse: A review of the literature. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Published online October 1976:580-590. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1976.tb00957.x
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    Harkness S, Super CM. Why understanding culture is essential for supporting children and families. Applied Developmental Science. Published online July 17, 2020:14-25. doi:10.1080/10888691.2020.1789354
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    Fang X, Brown DS, Florence CS, Mercy JA. The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online February 2012:156-165. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.10.006
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    Crouch JL, Milner JS, Thomsen C. Childhood physical abuse, early social support, and risk for maltreatment: current social support as a mediator of risk for child physical abuse☆11☆ The research for this paper was conducted as part of the first author’s fulfillment of the requirements for the doctoral degree and was under the direction of the second author. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 2001:93-107. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(00)00230-1
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About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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