A Parent’s Abuse as a Child Could Have Consequences for their Own Children

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A Parent’s Abuse as a Child Could Have Consequences for their Own Children      

Jim Windell


            The National Children’s Alliance reports that more than 600,000 children are abused in the U.S each year with an estimated 618,000 children found to be victims of abuse and neglect in 2020. However, this data may be incomplete, and the actual number of children abused is likely underreported. Child protective agencies investigate nearly four million reported incidents of abuse or neglect each year.

            While these statistics are grim enough, they certainly don’t tell the complete story. Maltreatment of young children may pose a serious heath risk and even death, there are a host of lifelong consequences associated with child abuse. Among the impacts related to child maltreatment are physical, mental, behavioral, and social ramifications that can continue through an individual’s later pregnancy and parenthood. As a result, adverse experiences during the parents’ childhood can affect their own children’s development and health.

            In a recently published study, a team of researchers headed by Dr. Claudia Buss, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Charité, shows that health problems are more common in children of mothers who experienced maltreatment themselves as children.

           In this research, which was published in The Lancet Public Health, the researchers define maltreatment as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect by a parent or guardian leading to physical or emotional harm or the threat of harm to a child. The researchers analyzed data on more than 4,300 American mothers and their children from 21 long-term cohorts. Mothers reported on their childhood experiences and provided information on health diagnoses in their biological children up to the age of 18, or this information was collected during visits conducted as part of the study. This valuable trove of data extending across two generations of the same family allowed researchers to identify meaningful connections.

            Findings reveal that children of mothers who reported adverse experiences were at higher risk of asthma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. These children also have a higher incidence of symptoms and behaviors associated with depression and anxiety disorders – often referred to as “internalizing” disorders. Daughters of mothers in this group are also at higher risk of obesity than their sons.

           Lead author, Claudia Buss, who is head of the Institute of Medical Psychology at Charité in Berlin, Germany, says that “All of these connections are independent of whether the mother has the same diagnosis. That suggests that the risk of that particular health problem is not being transmitted genetically.”

           However, researchers have not yet fully decoded the exact mechanisms by which the risk is passed on to the next generation. There are indications that adverse childhood experiences could affect maternal biology during pregnancy, as for example stress hormones. This can affect fetal development in a way that the offspring become more vulnerable for impaired health. There is evidence that biological changes like these are more pronounced in mothers who have developed mental health problems, such as depression, as a consequence of their traumatic experiences. If the mother’s mental health is affected by her childhood experiences, this may also impact on how she interacts with her child once it is born, which is likely to be just as important a factor in these multigenerational effects.

           Dr. Nora Moog, also from the Institute of Medical Psychology at Charité and first author of the publication, says that “To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine multiple health problems at once in relation to early trauma in mothers in a large, sociodemographically and ethnically diverse sample. That has been done primarily for individual diseases in the past.” In keeping with this approach, the researchers showed that children of mothers exposed to early trauma are at greater likelihood of developing multiple physical and mental health problems. The risk is also greater the more serious the mother’s childhood experiences were.

           Buss points out that their findings do not mean that all children of mothers with adverse childhood experiences automatically end up with health problems. However, she adds, “The risk is elevated, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a specific health problem.”

           The authors indicate that they assume that appropriate support for mothers who suffer from the consequences of childhood maltreatment can have a positive effect on their health and well-being and that of their children. That, though, means that it is very important to identify these mothers and children early on. One possible way of doing this would be to have doctors address parents’ own childhood experiences during prenatal or pediatric checkups and provide information on how to contact various support programs or counseling services.

           This kind of early intervention could help two generations: the parent, who experienced maltreatment and may be suffering from health consequences; and the child, who could be prevented from developing health problems.

           To read the full article, find it with this reference:

Moog, N. K., Cummings, P. D., Jackson, K. L., Aschner, J. L., Barrett, E. S., Bastain, T. M., ... & Buss, C. (2023). Intergenerational transmission of the effects of maternal exposure to childhood maltreatment in the USA: a retrospective cohort study. The Lancet Public Health, 8(3), e226-e237.


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