The belief that abuse is transmitted intergenerationally is widely acclaimed in the child abuse literature and popular press alike. Numerous professional reviews (i.e., Friedrich and Wheeler, 1982; Spinetta and Rigler, 1972) and newspaper articles have been published promulgating this idea. Although this belief is extensively held, and there are many media reports that suggest that 99 percent of all maltreated children become abusers themselves, there is a paucity of empirical evidence to support this claim.
Current research indicates that unqualified acceptance of the intergenerational hypothesis is unwarranted (see Kaufman and Zigler, 1987, for a review of the literature). Being maltreated as a child puts one at risk for becoming abusive, but the path between these two points is far from direct or inevitable.
In this chapter, several issues associated with the intergenerational hypothesis are addressed. In the first section, a sample of empirical studies are reviewed and an estimate of the true rate of transmission derived. Next, two mechanisms proposed to explain transmission, when it does occur, are discussed. In the third section, mediating factors shown to affect the likelihood of abuse being transmitted are outlined, and the complex relationships among these factors highlighted. The possibility of using information about child rearing experiences to predict whether or not parents are apt to become abusive is explored in the last section of this chapter.
The intergenerational hypothesis
There are many papers cited in support of the intergenerational hypothesis that make no more than assertions of its validity without providing any substantive evidence (Bleiberg, 1965; Blue, 1965; Corbett, 1964; Harper, 1963; Kempe, 1973; Wasserman, 1967).