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Breaking the Cycle

Assistant professors of Epidemiology & Biostatistics Melissa Tracy and Allison Appleton found a link between maternal social support and a decrease in familial violence. (Photo by Paul Miller)

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 22, 2017) — UAlbany researchers have found a link suggesting the cycle of violence in families can be broken if the mother receives social support and if there is paternal involvement during a particular key year in the child’s life.

Abuse within families has long been known to be cyclical, and mistreatment during one’s childhood is considered a risk factor for subsequent violence in adulthood. Parents who were abused in their own childhoods are more likely to be violent towards their children than parents who were not abused, and so on. However, until now, little was known about the circumstances that could disrupt this cycle of inter-generational violence.

Melissa Tracy and Allison Appleton, assistant professors of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health (SPH), along with former SPH research assistant Madeleine Salo, conducted two complimentary analyses using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), an ongoing birth cohort study in southwestern England.

ALSPAC began collecting data on more than 14,000 women with delivery dates in 1991 and 1992 and continues to collect information on the health, developmental behaviors, and social circumstances of the children, their mothers and their mothers’ partners, using detailed questionnaires and in-person interviews.

The research trio focused on measuring ALSPAC participants’ responses regarding:

  • If the mother had been abused as a child
  • Social support the mother had after delivery (such as friends, helpful neighbors, etc.)
  • Whether the mother’s partner had been abusive to her since the child’s birth
  • Whether the mother or father abused the child between the child’s birth and 9th birthday
  • If the father or a father-figure was involved in the child’s life
  • Violent behavior of the child once they reached young adulthood

In analyzing the data, the researchers made several discoveries, including:

  • Maternal social support from friends or family in the postpartum period reduced the odds of offspring maltreatment by 5%, including among mothers with no history of childhood abuse and mothers who experienced childhood abuse but who were not currently in an abusive relationship.
  • Paternal involvement, particularly during the 9th-10th year of the child’s life, represented by more frequent and more positive father-child interactions, reduced the odds of an offspring perpetrating violence in young adulthood by 15%, even among youths who had experienced childhood abuse.
  • Among mothers who reported emotional or physical abuse by their partner after the child’s birth, social support had a less positive effect toward preventing child abuse
  • Maltreatment in childhood continued to increase risk of subsequent violence perpetration.

“These findings are important because they show that supportive relationships at different stages of the life course can protect against subsequent violence, even among those who were previously exposed to violence themselves,” Tracy said.

“It’s become clear that screening mothers for victimization, including both childhood maltreatment and current intimate partner violence, and providing appropriate referrals for therapy and services may also help break the cycle of violence across generations.”

The full research paper and findings can be found here.

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