In previous posts we noted that child abuse can be passed on from one generation to the next. Abuse your child and you have increased the likelihood that your child will abuse his/her child, and so one down the line. Note that we said “increased the likelihood” not “guaranteed.” So let’s look at some of the psychological factors involved in this perpetuation.

Also, please remember what we have said previously about an individual as a complex array of puzzle pieces. We may isolate and understand some of those pieces, but there will always be more pieces. We can never have a complete understanding of an individual. Yes, we can make some really good educated guesses about one’s psychological dynamics, but our understanding will always be incomplete. For instance, if you hear someone say, perhaps in a courtroom as an expert witness, “This man is no longer a danger to society. He can be paroled without concern,” red flags should go up in your head. No expert should make such a bold and absolute prediction.

OK, back to perpetuating the psychological seeds of child abuse. First of all, let’s note that if you are raised in a physically abusive environment, you are seeing an aggressive role model; that model is telling you, “Violence and aggression are the way to resolve conflicts, and are appropriate reactions when you are frustrated and angry.” The research is quite clear that a cold, rejecting early home life increases the odds of later adult dysfunctions, such as child abuse.

An early abusive environment will encourage you to mistrust the world. You will see others as unreliable, dangerous, and social interactions are to be avoided for your psychological well-being. You will hold grudges, which will perpetuate your inner anger. These reactions will give you great insecurity in social situations. The result could be extreme withdrawal and disengagement from interactions with others or lashing out to harm them. The precise pattern is one of those puzzle pieces that is hard to predict in advance.

As we noted in an earlier entry, whether you withdraw or lash out to deal with your anxieties and anger, you will have a hard time learning how to interpret social signals. Among other things, you will be confused about how to give and receive love. This confusion will add frustration and more anger to the mix, and you will be likely to take your anger out on the source of your confusion.

The very presence of a child will likely tap into the recesses of your mind and awaken the anxieties, confusion, and anger of your childhood when you were abused. You will put yourself in the place of the child in front of you, and you will react to the frustrating social signals in the way you experienced: Abuse.

We have not painted a very pretty picture, have we? Remember, however, the transition from abused to abuser need not be inevitable. Just being aware of all the possibilities raised above can help you introduce new pieces into the puzzle that is you, or the puzzle that is someone you’re trying to help. Our personalities are not static and unchanging as we grow; we are capable of taking charge of those things we can control, learning to face and accept (not blame) some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, finding values that coordinate with a social conscience, and behaving in more personally satisfying ways by reaching new levels of self-awareness and self-actualization.

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