In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intergenerational Transmission of Maltreatment

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Reviews and Conceptual Frameworks
  • Reviews of Empirical Studies
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Organizations
  • Websites

Social Work Intergenerational Transmission of Maltreatment
Becci Akin, Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, Nancy Jo Kepple, Shelby Clark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0274


According to the World Health Organization, one in four adults report a history of physical maltreatment, and an estimated 41,000 children under the age of 15 die due to homicide death. Although the majority of children who are maltreated will not continue this pattern as parents of their own children, the need to prevent child maltreatment is significant. Child abuse and neglect are public health problems that can lead to morbidity and mortality in childhood and increased risk for health concerns into adulthood such as alcoholism, smoking, and drug abuse; depression and suicide; high-risk sexual behaviors; sexually transmitted diseases; and certain chronic diseases. As a single country example of the costly public health problem, the total lifetime economic burden resulting from new cases of fatal and nonfatal child maltreatment in the United States has been estimated to be above $120 billion. In an attempt to understand why and how some individuals who are abused and neglected continue this cycle, the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment has long been a topic of great interest. Understanding the pathways to child abuse and neglect is necessary for disrupting the intergenerational cycles of maltreatment. Given that childhood exposure to maltreatment has long-term consequences and significant costs to society, knowledge of these pathways is critical for developing strategies for early identification, engagement of children and parents, prevention, and intervention. This article provides an overview of select resources for developing a foundational understanding of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. First, published literature on Theoretical Reviews and Conceptual Frameworks are provided. Selected articles present varying views on key theories and concepts that guide current understandings of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. Following the theory overview is a section of selected Reviews of Empirical Studies, including literature reviews guided by well-defined methodological criteria, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses. Next is a section that provides Methodological Examples, including subsections of selected Cross-Sectional Studies on varying topics and populations related to the generational continuity of maltreatment, Longitudinal Studies on Adult Subsequent Maltreatment of Children, Longitudinal Studies on Adult Subsequent Parenting Characteristics and Practices, and Qualitative Studies. Then, a section on special interests is presented (i.e., Population, Problem-Specific, or Other Special Interest Studies), comprising the topics of Biological and Neurological Factors, Intimate Partner Violence, Adolescent Mothers, and International Studies. Finally, the last four sections include select resource lists for Journals, Textbooks, Organizations, and Websites that may be helpful for identifying additional articles and other resources on the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.

Theoretical Reviews and Conceptual Frameworks

The theoretical basis for understanding intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment is supported by a variety of types of literature, including conceptual papers, literature reviews, and publications on intervention development. Among this peer-reviewed literature, Belsky 1993 is a seminal article that articulated and explained the developmental-ecological perspective for this area of inquiry. This early work has been expanded by more recent papers, including a special section in Developmental Psychology on the intergenerational transmission of parenting, where Belsky, et al. 2009 introduces the special section and Conger, et al. 2009 concludes it with key recommendations for future research. Two additional articles build on the idea that biological and environmental factors should be considered in the research on intergenerational maltreatment (Belsky and Pluess 2009, Schury and Kolassa 2012). DeGregorio 2012 adds to this conceptual literature by critiquing existing literature and offering a new conceptual model that incorporates neuropsychological mechanisms as a potential factor in intergenerational transmission of maltreatment. Other studies narrow their focus to specific age groups, such as young children (Lieberman, et al. 2011) and adolescents (Perepletchikova and Kaufman 2010, Trickett, et al. 2011). Finally, Gonzalez, et al. 2012 offers a review of theory and literature to propose a model that links maternal executive functioning with a history of child maltreatment and parenting.

  • Belsky, J. 1993. Etiology of child maltreatment: A developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin 114.3: 414–434.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.114.3.413

    This article uses the developmental-ecological perspective to explore the causes of child maltreatment, particularly physical abuse and neglect. The developmental-ecological perspective contains three distinct contexts that were applied to child maltreatment: the developmental context, immediate interactional context, and broader context. The application of the developmental-ecological perspective explains there are many factors contributing to child abuse and neglect.

  • Belsky, J., R. D. Conger, and D. M. Capaldi. 2009. The intergenerational transmission of parenting: Introduction to the special section. Developmental Psychology 45.5: 1201–1204.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0016245

    This article introduces a special section on the intergenerational transmission of parenting. The authors review the results of multiple studies, including the role of mediating and moderating mechanisms in the intergenerational transmission of parenting. This article highlights that research is currently lacking about situations where parenting is not transmitted across generations.

  • Belsky, J., and M. Pluess. 2009. Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin 135.6: 885–908.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0017376

    The authors use the differential susceptibility hypothesis and biological-sensitivity-to-context thesis to explore individuals’ propensity to be influenced negatively and positively by the envrionment. They review evidence to extend the diathesis-stress model by incorporating the concepts of “vulnerability factors” and “plasticity factors.” Child maltreatment is used as a primary example as the authors discuss limits of the evidence, potential mechanisms of influence, and unknowns of differential suspeptibility.

  • Conger, R. D., J. Belsky, and D. M. Capaldi. 2009. The intergenerational transmission of parenting: Closing comments for the special section. Developmental Psychology 45.5: 1276–1283.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0016911

    This article concludes a special section of five studies on the intergenerational transmission of parenting by remarking on findings that are consistent with the existing literature and those that contrast with existing evidence. An important contribution of the article is its recommendations for future research, pointing to the specific moderator variables that should be studied to understand the continuities and discontinuities in the intergenerational transmission of parenting.

  • DeGregorio, L. J. 2012. Intergenerational transmission of abuse: Implications for parenting interventions from a neurological perspective. Traumatology 19.2: 158–166.

    DOI: 10.1177/1534765612457219

    This article begins with a critique of the existing literature on the intergenerational transmission of maltreatment, centering on the absence of brain development information. After discussing the cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of intergenerational maltreatment, the author presents a conceptual model that incorporates neuropsychological mechanisms. The article concludes that further research on the neuropsychological consequences of childhood trauma may be key to breaking the cycle of maltreatment.

  • Gonzalez, A., J. M. Jenkins, M. Steiner, and A. S. Fleming. 2012. Maternal early life experiences and parenting: The mediating role of cortisol and executive function. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 51.7: 673–682.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.04.003

    This article proposes a model linking maternal executive functioning with child maltreatment, parenting, and child outcomes. Attachment theory, social learning theory, and ecologically based theories are used as the theoretical foundations. The author posits maternal cognitive processes (executive function, empathy, and theory of mind) as mediating maternal history of childhood maltreatment and thereby influencing parental functioning. Parenting then mediates child outcomes. Implications for interventions to target executive functioning are discussed.

  • Lieberman, A., A. Chu, P. Van Horn, and W. Harris. 2011. Trauma in early childhood: Empirical evidence and clinical implications. Development and Psychopathology 23:397–410.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0954579411000137

    This article exlpores trauma and maltreatment in early childhood (0–5 years). The authors discuss needed further inquiry on this topic, including systematic research, clinical research, and public policy initiatives. Intergenerational trauma and maltreatment are key topics among the studies reviewed. The article concludes with recommendations for clinical practice, public policy, and future research.

  • Perepletchikova, F., and J. Kaufman. 2010. Emotional and behavioral sequelae of childhood maltreatment. Current Opinion in Pediatrics 22.5: 610–615.

    This article reviews research from January 2009 to April 2010 on child maltreatment’s effects on adolescent emotional and behavioral development. The authors cover studies focused on sexual abuse, revictimization, and subsequent violence toward others or toward self. They also review findings on genetic and environmental risk and protective factors. The authors conclude that future research should investigate the long-term outcomes of adolescents who have received evidence-based interventions.

  • Schury, K., and I.-T. Kolassa. 2012. Biological memory of childhood maltreatment: Current knowledge and recommendations for future research. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1262:93–100.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06617.x

    This article focuses on the biological determinants and sequelae of child maltreatment and its transmission to future generations. The authors explore the existing literature to support the hypothesis that the biological effects of child maltreatment can be transmitted from generation to generation, concentrating on the stress system, cellular aging, and the immune system. They conclude with suggestions for partnership across fields to research this area of inquiry.

  • Trickett, P., S. Negriff, J. Ji, and M. Peckins. 2011. Child maltreatment and adolescent development. Journal of Research on Adolescence 21:3–20.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00711.x

    This article reviews a decade of research (2000–2010) on the effects of child maltreatment on adolescent development. The authors cover multiple prospective studies on maladaptive and adaptive behaviors; studies that investigated the outcomes of delinquency, substance abuse, romantic relationships, and sexual abuse; and studies that examined psychobiological impacts of maltreatment and how they may influence maladaptive development.

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