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Testing the cycle of maltreatment hypothesis: Meta-analytic evidence of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2019

Sheri Madigan
University of Calgary Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, Calgary
Chantal Cyr
Université du Québec à Montréal Institut Universitaire Jeunes en Difficulté CIUSSS Centre-Sud-de-l'île-de-Montréal
Rachel Eirich
University of Calgary
R. M. Pasco Fearon
University College London
Anh Ly
University of Calgary
Christina Rash
University of Calgary
Julia C. Poole
University of Calgary
Lenneke R. A. Alink
Leiden University
E-mail address:


It has long been claimed that “maltreatment begets maltreatment,” that is, a parent's history of maltreatment increases the risk that his or her child will also suffer maltreatment. However, significant methodological concerns have been raised regarding evidence supporting this assertion, with some arguing that the association weakens in samples with higher methodological rigor. In the current study, the intergenerational transmission of maltreatment hypothesis is examined in 142 studies (149 samples; 227,918 dyads) that underwent a methodological quality review, as well as data extraction on a number of potential moderator variables. Results reveal a modest association of intergenerational maltreatment (k = 80; d = 0.45, 95% confidence interval; CI [0.37, 0.54]). Support for the intergenerational transmission of specific maltreatment types was also observed (neglect: k = 13, d = 0.24, 95% CI [0.11, 0.37]; physical abuse: k = 61, d = 0.41, 95% CI [0.33, 0.49]; emotional abuse: k = 18, d = 0.57, 95% CI [0.43, 0.71]; sexual abuse: k = 18, d = 0.39, 95% CI [0.24, 0.55]). Methodological quality only emerged as a significant moderator of the intergenerational transmission of physical abuse, with a weakening of effect sizes as methodological rigor increased. Evidence from this meta-analysis confirms the cycle of maltreatment hypothesis, although effect sizes were modest. Future research should focus on deepening understanding of mechanisms of transmission, as well as identifying protective factors that can effectively break the cycle of maltreatment.

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