Intergenerational Abuse Thesis

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Intergenerational Abuse

An Investigation and Analysis of the Common Identified Causes and Effects of Intergenerational Abuse

Intergenerational abuse, abuse that appears to be an inherited behavior passed from one generation in a family or other close relationship of individuals to the next, has been identified as a major factor in many abuse cases for some time. This study examines the relationship of the intergenerational factor to the abuse itself by comparing the causes and effects of intergenerational abuse with those of isolated or non-intergenerational incidents of abuse as presented in current literature on the subject. The basic findings suggest that intergenerational abuse causes a somewhat greater prevalence of later psychological disturbance.


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Abusive behavior is often learned by children who are either the victims of or merely witnesses to such behavior, especially if exposed to such behavior on the part of a family member or other authority figure on a regular basis (Huefner et al. 2005; Kim et al. 2009; Leifer & Smith 1990). When these children grow up and become abusive adults, the cycle is perpetuated. This cycle is known as intergenerational abuse. There has been an enormous amount of research conducted on cases of child abuse in general and the phenomenon of intergenerational abuse specifically; this paper attempts to synthesize some of the various findings of previously conducted research in order to determine what differences, if any, exist between the causes and effects of intergenerational abuse vs. non-intergenerational abuse, and the degree of these differences.

Thesis on Intergenerational Abuse Assignment

Much research, especially when focusing on intergenerational abuse, has dealt with child abuse, and less predominantly spousal or partner abuse that the child has witnessed over prolonged periods (Cross 2001; Huefner et al. 2005; Kim et al. 2009; Leifer & Smith 1990). Research into the prevalence and degree of elder abuse in home- and/or family-care situations also suggests that such abuse is another possible source of learning for intergenerational abuse, and can be both a cause and an effect of intergenerational abuse (Dong et al. 2009; Hildreth et al. 2009; Levine 2003). The psychological effects on children of both experiencing and witnessing abuse are complex and profound, often leading to depressive disorders and social adjustment problems both in childhood and in adult life (Lumley & Harkness 2009). Through a better understanding of how intergenerationality affects abuse situations, it is hoped that better methods for mitigating the effects of abuse and breaking intergenerational cycles can be achieved.

Research Questions

Some of the specific issues addressed in this research include the differences, if any, in the psychological effects of isolated abuse incidents and known intergenerational cases of abuse. The causation of abuse, when determinable, was also a pressing question addressed in this research. Specifically, a literature review was employed to determine whether any specific acts or patterns of abuse could be used to predict the development of an intergenerational issue, or if other (primarily psychological) factors could affect this outcome. Research was also aimed at identifying how intergenerational abuse situations were formed, and what behaviors might be addressed to change this.


Ongoing victimization or witnessing of violent non-sexual abuse is the primary indicator for creating an intergenerational abuse situation, especially in male children (Leifer & Smith 1990). Exposure to sexual abuse, either as victims or witnesses, has been shown to be a significant predictors of abusive behavior of both a sexual and a physical nature in both males and females (Leif & Smith 1990; Cross 2001; Huefner et al. 2007). Sexual abuse also causes other severe psychological issues and often conceptual and emotive difficulties that can affect parenting in other ways (Cross 2001; Leifer & Smith 1990). In general, the only identifiable factor in the creation of an intergenerational abuse scenario is any prolonged exposure to abuse.

Initial results regarding the long-term effects of childhood exposure to abuse, both through victimization and through witnessing adult intimate partner abuse, suggest that the psychological damages and learning patterns can be significantly mitigated by inclusion in a long-term residential care program (Huefner et al. 2007). This suggests that the effects of such abuse are not immediate or fundamentally formative, but that intergenerational abuse is indeed a learned behavior that can be unlearned with time and an environment that provides proper care and positive learning models (Huefner et al. 2007; Leifer & Smith 1990). Even in adulthood, intervention techniques with mothers who suffered both physical (violent, non-sexual) and sexual abuse have been shown effective in counteracting certain identified parenting problems and instilling new behaviors in these mothers (Cross 2001; Leifer & Smith 1990).

The long-term effects of childhood abuse are not, of course, limited to increasing the likelihood that the abuse victim or witness will grow up to become an abuser themselves. There are other long-term effects of abuse, and in these some differences can be discerned between types of abuse and the likelihood of the development of certain issues. Emotional and physical abuse from both the mother and/or father figure for prolonged periods of time have been strongly correlated to depressive tendencies in young adults, but sexual abuse has not shown the same correlation (Lumley & Harkness 2009). The reasons behind this appear to be a difference in the cognitive effect of the varying types of abuse; cognitive schemas appear to be shared by emotional and physical abuse from either parent, but not with sexual abuse (Lumley & Harkness 2009). This noted cognitive difference has not been shown to have a high correlation with instances of intergenerational abuse, however, suggesting a different learning mechanism.

Whatever learning takes place, some studies suggest that maltreatment, whether or not it reaches the point typically classified as abuse, can have a serious affect on a child's ability or willingness to be influenced by their parent's other behaviors (Kim et al. 2009). This could explain the ease with which abusive behavior is learned and allowed to become an intergenerational issue; the child fixates on the abusive behavior to the exclusion of other features of the parent-child relationship, and no competing behaviors are learned as they are in non-maltreated children (Kim et al. 2009). There is also evidence that abuse creates a higher prevalence of certain pregnancy complaints and attitudes, which can then be transferred to the infant once born and so perpetuate abusive behaviors on an intergenerational basis (Lukase et al. 2009).

Child abuse is not the only type of intergenerational abuse that occurs; elder abuse has also been linked to intergenerational abuse as both a causal agent through the witnessing of such behavior and as an effect of learned behaviors in the abuser (Dong et al. 2009; Hildreth et al. 2009). Putting cases of self-neglect (which form a major proportion of elder abuse cases), one of the most prominent risk-factors for elder abuse is a family history of violent behavior and abuse (Levine 2009). In fact, such a family history of intergenerational abuse is cited as a greater predictor of elder abuse than prominent and common causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer's (Hildreth et al. 2009; Levine 2009). This evidence, combined with the success of early intervention in modifying abuse victim/witness adult behavior, suggests that learning patterns become rigid at some point, and the abusive behavior persists in all situations of control (Levine 2009; Huefner et al. 2007). This could lead to further insight s as to how to break the intergenerational cycyle of abuse that has been so prevalently noted and so often implicated.

Little research has been done as to the specific effects of witnessing elder abuse as opposed to child or spousal/partner abuse, but in general the witnessing of abuse in any prolonged situation is likely to lead to learned behavior in children (Leifer & Smith 1990; Huefner 2007). The fact that elder abuse is not as often recognized by the medical establishment as child abuse possibly makes the problem of learned behavior more serious, as there is less mitigating information and examples setting regarding elder abuse (Dong et al. 2009).

Literature Review and Suggestions for Further Research

Huefner et al. (2007) is the only study included in this review that analyzed a specific intervention program (Boys and Girls Town) during childhood, and though the results require further comparison and verification they are initially encouraging. Though the feasibility of an alternative long-term care problem for all children living in abusive situations makes this unlikely, the fact that early and extensive intervention can result in such changes provides at least one method of breaking the cycle of intergenerational abuse. Further research in this area could determine the specific mechanism(s) at work in both the studied institution and others that lead to the corrected behaviors and conceptions, and perhaps thus suggest more manageable and available therapies for children in identified abusive situations. If these techniques could be better identified and understood, they could be made more prevalent and possibly constitute a major step forward in reducing or eliminating instances of intergenerational abuse.

The effects of non-intervention in mothers who suffered childhood sexual abuse are examined by Cross (2001). Though intergenerational… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Intergenerational Abuse" Thesis in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Intergenerational Abuse.  (2009, September 26).  Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Intergenerational Abuse."  26 September 2009.  Web.  11 July 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Intergenerational Abuse."  September 26, 2009.  Accessed July 11, 2020.