of child abuse survivors become abusers, too, transmitting our trauma to our descendants. On one side of my family, I can trace our lineage of child abuse back at least four generations to my great-grandmother, whose father is said to have once struck her on the head so hard that her ear bled on the opposite side.In used 30 years of child protective service agency records and reports from parents and children to debunk the old idea that parents who were physically abused as children are more likely to physically abuse their kids. Researchers did find that the children of child abuse victims were more likely to be neglected or sexually abused. However, the study author, Cathy Spatz Widom, pointed out that the use of data from child protective services may have picked up neglect and sexual abuse cases that are overlooked in the general population.
“What we found was that it was not inevitable, not deterministic, not the majority of these cases,” Dr. Widom said in an interview for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “It has this important message that you shouldn’t—one shouldn’t, if you have a history, that you shouldn’t necessarily feel that you’re bound to continue in this cycle of maltreatment.”
The violence in my family stopped when my parents separated, when I was 15. At that time, I thought of healing as a discrete task with a definite endpoint, a line item I could check off on my mental health to-do list. I hoped I would be officially healed one day, and serenity would fall over the rest of my life like a quiet, steady snow.
Instead, every major milestone has the potential to touch off a new aftershock. Many child abuse survivors grapple with how to translate our childhood experiences into our new families. What does it mean for us and our children that we come from the people who have often hurt us most?
is a writer and board member at Vera House, a comprehensive domestic and sexual violence service agency in Syracuse, N.Y.
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Breaking the Abuse Cycle