Children who suffer physical abuse at the hands of their parents are widely thought to be more likely than non-abused kids to harm their own children as adults. But a review of scientific studies on the topic shows that there is only limited evidence to support this claim. Dr. Ilgi Ozturk Ertem and colleagues at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, searched the medical literature for studies on the presence of child abuse in two generations.

Their article in the September 2nd issue of the international medical journal The Lancet, reviews 10 studies that were published between 1965 and 1990. The investigators developed a set of eight criteria to judge whether each report met the standards of a well-crafted study. Unfortunately, only one study met all criteria while another met six, according to the report. Of the two studies that met the most criteria, one suggested that being abused as a child increased the odds of becoming an abuser as an adult by more than 12 times, the researchers write.

But the results of the other study did not support this connection. Four of the remaining studies found that child abuse significantly increased the risk of becoming an abuser, but the risk was less substantial in three other studies. “Although belief in the intergenerational continuity of child abuse is so widely held, our searches identified only 10 studies that provided data on abuse in two consecutive generations and used comparison groups,” Ertem’s team writes. And since the latest studies reviewed were conducted in the 1980s, the results may not apply in the year 2000, they note. “Additional studies are needed that move beyond studying risk factors to deepening the knowledge on how to help parents prevent child abuse and promote the healthy development of their children,” the authors conclude.

SOURCE: The Lancet 2000;356:814-819.

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