Child Development under Conditions of Abuse

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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In the land of the free and home of the brave, the livelihood of future American generations has become enormously threatened. Children are suffering daily from a growingly horrific epidemic. According to a study conducted by Slep, Heyman, and Foran (2015), the vast majority of the United States population perceives child abuse and neglect as rare and an unnatural occurrence in families. The harsh reality is that child abuse and neglect is occurring at an increasing rate. Statistics from the U.

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S. Department of Health and Human Services (2017:10) show that in 2015, just over 7,000,000 children were involved in reports of child abuse and neglect were reported to Child Protective Services [CPS] in the United States. This is a 9% increase in child maltreatment prevalence in 2015, compared to the national estimate in 2011 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017: 2). These numbers are both astonishing and inexcusable.

Previous literature suggests that violent, aggressive behavior is concentrated in families. In a study that utilized a family cohort from three generations, Junger et al. (2013) uncovered the likelihood of parental arrest was related to the likelihood of grandparental arrests. These findings strongly suggest the intergenerational transmission of violence, passed down from generation to generation. Need better transition The increased difficulty in preventing child maltreatment may be due to the passing of abusive and violent parental behaviors from one generation to the next. Over 88% of maltreated children suffer from neglect at the hands of their biological parents (Bartlet, Kotake, Fauth, & Easterbrooks, 2017). The intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment (ITCM) is empirically supported and largely studied across a variety of different disciplines.

Researchers became especially fascinated in discovering the cause of intergenerational child non-accident injury by parents or caregivers. Unfortunately, because human behavior is often unpredictable, it is increasingly difficult to pinpoint the origins of child maltreatment. This is extremely difficult due to the fact that parents who engage in child abuse typically vary in their psychological, social, and demographic characteristics (Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 2012). Current studies have attempted to explain ITCM through a multitude of different theoretical perspectives, mainly focusing on the environment of the parent-child relationship. This secular view of the current literature does not account for genetic influences. Without testing for genetic influences for ITCM, the field of child maltreatment research will continue to lack a full encompassing explanation of ITCM and the risk factors that are associated with the transmission of violence among families.

The purpose of the current work is to explore the application of the biosocial perspective to the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment among families. The current paper will begin with a statement of the research questions. Next, this paper will address the current literature of ITCM and the limitations it provides by not examining the interplay between genetics and environment. Then, this paper will discuss current biosocial concepts that are relevant in applying the biosocial perspective to ITCM. Lastly, this paper will conclude with a discussion of the benefits of integrating of the aforementioned biosocial concepts with ITCM.

Statement of Research Questions

In this integrative paper, I will analyze current literature on the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment, as well as current biosocial concepts, in order to incorporate the biosocial perspective to child maltreatment research.

This paper will aim to answer the following research questions:

  1. Can child maltreatment be passed down through the intergenerational transmission of abuse?
  2. If so, what factors make it more likely for child abuse and neglect to be passed from generation to generation?

The importance of the integration of the biosocial perspective with child maltreatment research will be further discussed.


Transmission of Child Maltreatment In early theoretical construction, the intergenerational transmission of violence was the most widely accepted etiology of child maltreatment (Egeland, 1993; Tomison, 1996). Studies that utilize the intergenerational transmission of violence perspective most commonly hypothesize that children may learn to be violent and/or abusive from abusive parents, whom in turn learned to be abusive from their abusive parents. In other words, intergenerational transmission of violence suggests that child maltreatment is caused by a cycle of abuse. In general, intergenerational transmission of violence can be defined by two main categories: social learning theory and biological predisposition (Tomison, 1996). Much of the research within this perspective focuses on intergenerational transmission as a result of Akers’ (1998) social learning theory.

However, other studies have hypothesized that the intergenerational transmission of violence has a genetic predisposition for violent behavior (Tomison, 1996). To date, there are no studies that analyze both the learning environment and biological predispositions for violent behavior.

Social Learning Theory

The environment plays a significant role in the context of learning. As such, social learning theory is generally used to best explain ITCM. Social learning theory has been used as the main vehicle in explaining the learning of criminality and violent behavior. Previous studies have concluded that children who are exposed to violence through victimization or observation are likely to develop imitating behaviors of violence (Wareham, Boots, and Chavez, 2009), lending evidence to the strength of social learning theory. Because the parental role is the most powerful role in the child’s life, the child rationalizes the violent and aggressive actions as appropriate behavior (Bandura, 1977). A violent family life will ultimately expose the child to favorable definitions, models to imitate, and reinforcements to violence.

Children who are exposed to violent behaviors are ultimately taught the value of violent behavior. In turn, violent behaviors are more likely to be exhibited if the child recognizes that the consequences of the violent actions contain only a few negative consequences (Wareham, Boots, & Chavez, 2009). Thus, the child conceptualizes that violence solves all conflict.

Current research indicates that parental history of maltreatment is one of the most significant risk factors for ITCM. According to a study conducted by Pears and Capaldi (2001: 1440), parents who were exposed to “multiple acts of abuse and at least one physical impact were more likely to become abusive than were the other parents.” Similarly, the results from Bartlet et al. (2017) provide strong evidence of ITCM. Overall, Bartlet et al. (2017) found that of the children who reported maternal maltreatment history, over half (54.4%) reported being maltreated. In addition, Valentino et al. (2012) revealed that mothers with a history of abuse were 54% more likely to have children who report abuse. It is clear that earlier victimization is a possible source for later perpetration of maltreatment.

One of the best examples of social learning can be seen through the intergenerational transmission of parenting and parenting styles. A multitude of studies have found that angry-aggressive parenting styles are intergenerationally transmitted. A study that contained a sample drawn from high-risk neighborhoods in Seattle found that adolescent’s that experience harsh discipline in their early teenage years predicted the same type of harsh parenting as adults raising their own children (Bailey, Hill, Oesterle, & Hawkins, 2009). Similar results can be found within a longitudinal study conducted by Conger and colleagues (2003). Their results indicated that the aggressive parenting styles of the parent are directly related to the aggressive parenting styles of the child (Conger, Neppl, Kim, & Scaramella, 2003). Theoretically, the passing of parenting practices falls directly in line with social learning theory. The intergenerational transmission of aggressive parenting styles is a prime example of learned anti-social and violent behavior. Ultimately, family-originated violence increases the risk for intergenerational violence to be transmitted.

Biological influences

The latter category ITCM research typically falls within takes into account biological predispositions. Some intergenerational transmission theorists posit that biological factors linked to child maltreatment are passed across through genetic inheritance (Tomison, 1996; Thornberry & Henry, 2013). The existing literature suggests that most behaviors and personality traits are highly heritable. This includes intelligence, psychological interests, psychiatric illnesses, and social attitudes (Polderman, Benyamin, de Leeuw, Sullivan, van Bochoven, Visscher, & Posthuma, 2015). Individual personality traits such as the Big Five (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness) even have heritable components ranging from 40-60% of variance (Power & Pluess, 2015; Vulasovic & Bratko, 2015). As such, there is also a genetic component to violent, aggressive behaviors.

Many studies have examined the genetic component to aggressive behavior. For example, Denson et al. (2014) looked to associate individual differences in monoamine oxidase-A gene (MAOA) to anger-driven aggression. MAOA is often referred to as the warrior gene, due to its link to aggression. In turn, MAOA is often the biomarker researchers will use to examine genetic predispositions for violent behavior. Results from this study lent evidence to a biological influence of aggression. Denson et al. (2014) concluded that men who had the low-expression allele of MAOA showed increased amygdala activation compared to the men who had the high-expression allele of MAOA. This falls in line with recent work that exhibits that men with the low-expression allele of MAOA not only show increased amygdala activation but also displays lower activation in the controlling prefrontal areas (McDermott, Tingley, Cowden, Frazzetto, Johnson, 2009).

Biological research has also focused on other biomarkers to examine the relationship between violent and antisocial behavior and genetic predispositions. Cortisol, a hormone secreted to regulate stress levels throughout the body, plays a crucial role in the mental health of an individual. A study conducted by Popma and colleagues (2007) investigated the moderating effects of cortisol on the relationship between testosterone and aggression. The results from Pompa et al. (2007) suggests that there is a significant, moderating role for cortisol. Low levels of cortisol are related to overt aggressive behavior in children due to their inability to regulate stress within the body.

There is striking evidence that aggressive behavior may be associated with developmental brain dysfunction. The brain, although a highly complex organ, is highly susceptible to many types of dysfunction. Brain imaging studies have reported time and time again relationships between aggression and parts of the brain that control higher cognitive functioning and emotion regulation. In a large scale review, Yang et al. (2008) summarized significant findings from brain imaging studies on aggressive and violent behavior. In an analysis of 31 brain imaging studies, Yang et al. (2008) concluded that impairments to the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, or the anterior cingulate cortex resulted in antisocial and aggressive individuals. Defects in these areas contribute to impulsivity, poor decision-making, inability to regulate emotions, and deficiencies in moral judgment (Yang et al., 2008). And in another meta-analysis study that focused on antisocial behavior in a sample of 43 studies, Yang and Raine (2009) found that aggressive behavior was associated with structural and functional defects in the prefrontal cortex. Thus, structural and functional dysfunction in the brain have serious impacts on the individual’s behavior.

In other words, children who have inherited biological predispositions for genetic traits such as having a low-functioning allele of the MAOA gene, low cortisol levels, and defects in brain functioning are at a higher risk of having violent and antisocial behavior. These biological predispositions, in turn, enable the continuity of the cycle of abuse. Because of the variability between individuals, researchers and practitioners are unable to discover the cause of ITCM. As a whole, the current literature on ITCM stresses the importance of the environment. Yet, the current literature does not examine the interplay between biological and social experiences on ITCM. This lack of research has resulted in the inability to understand the perpetration of violence that is passed along generationally.

Integration of Biosocial Concepts with ITCM

Previous methods for testing causality of ITCM have mainly focused on the environmental causation of child maltreatment. These methods typically look at associations between ITCM and environmental risk factors, such as poverty. Traditionally these methods could not separate environmental influences from genetically transmitted influences. In recent years, traditional environmental studies were questioned, as researchers became increasingly aware of the influence both genes and the environment has on behavior. In order to test the association between genes and the environment on behavior, many social scientists began utilizing behavioral-genetic designs.

Behavioral-genetic designs offer social scientists the tools to not only break apart genetic and environmental aspects of intergenerational transmission, but also the ability to understand how they work simultaneously together to cause behavior (Moffitt, 2005). The complex interaction between genetically influenced traits and the social context is commonly referred to as gene-environment interactions. Gene-environment interaction (GxE) methods are useful designs that can help explain the variance between groups. GxEs, for example, can explain why children whom are abused in the same family may turn out remarkably differently.

Traditionally, GxE studies have applied genetic designs (i.e. adoption studies, twin studies, etc.) as methods of analysis. The purpose of using behavioral-genetic designs is to estimate the importance of additive genetic (A), shared environment (C), and non-shared environmental (E) influences in causing to a trait’s variation. These designs are beneficial in studies examining the parent-child relationship because the parent and child share at least 50% of their genetic make-up. With this knowledge, researchers can theoretically assume that 25% of the variance is due to shared environments between the parent and child and 25% is due to the non-shared environment.

The use of GxE interactions illustrates the significant impact the social environment has on gene expression—and ultimately, behavior. Because this methodology takes into account the genetic and environmental influences, criminologists are better able to parse out which influences shape behavior. In turn, they are better equipped with tools for preventing continued criminal and violent behavior. Although many individuals believe the relationship between an individual and their environment is one-directional— environment to person— this is not always the case. Need better transition

Theoretical Foundation

Evolutionary theory posits that differences among individuals may be attributed to genotypic differences. In turn, the genotypic differences experienced among different individuals may prompt differences in how an environment is experienced and to what extent those differences may have on an individual’s behavior (Scarr & McCartney, 1983). This phenomenon can be described as differential susceptibility. The central idea to the differential susceptibility hypothesis is that individuals can vary in their vulnerability to the same environmental influences as someone else (van IJzendoorn, Belsky, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2012). The hypothesis states that those with risky genotypes are more likely to be vulnerable to a social context that may encourage or submerge gene expression.

In other words, genetically influenced traits, such as aggression and violence, may influence the likelihood of a parent or caregiver engaging in child maltreatment. However, those influences may be submerged based on the parent-child interaction. Thus, shifting predisposition toward or away from engaging in child maltreatment. To date, there is a small handful of studies that look at the continuity of child maltreatment over generations. That list becomes even smaller when looking specifically at the interaction between the genetic and environmental influences of the parent-child relationship. The very small handful of studies that are left lends evidence towards the differential susceptibility model.

Evidence Provided by GxE Interactions

Emerging research has concentrated on changes in gene expression due to the social environment of the child. Preliminary findings have indicated that environmental influences have the ability to “turn on” or “turn off” genes. Romens et al. (2014) examined the influence of the environment on genes by analyzing differences in biological genetic markers between 56 11-14-year-olds with and without a CPS history of substantiated physical child maltreatment. The findings lent evidence to the view that genes can be “turned on” and “turned off” based on life experiences. Children who experienced physical child maltreatment showed a change in the glucocorticoid receptor gene, which affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) (Romens et al., 2014).

Disruptions of the HPA system in the brain would make it difficult for people to regulate their emotional behavior and stress level. Similar findings, such as Perroud et al. (2011), have indicated that early adverse life experiences may have a significant impact on the HPA axis through genetic changes of the glucocorticoid receptor gene.

Genetically influenced traits, like aggression and violence, may be maximized when paired with a social context that encourages violent behaviors. In a study that aimed to examine the relationship between the MAOA gene and child maltreatment, Caspi et al. (2002) genotyped and surveyed the childhood adversity histories of 1,037 children. Of this group, 36% of the children experienced some type of severe or probable child maltreatment.

Not surprisingly, Caspi et al. (2002) did not find any main effects of MAOA on antisocial behavior. Interestingly, Caspi et al. (2002) did find an association between child maltreatment and the child’s subsequent antisocial behavior. The association was conditional based upon the child’s MAOA gene. Individuals who had both the genetic risk of low-MAOA activity and had experienced child maltreatment had higher levels of antisocial behavior than their counterparts. Similar support for differential susceptibility has been found in van IJzendoorn and colleagues (2012) meta-analysis examining the role of the 5HTTLPR genotype in GxE interactions. The findings from this study suggest that individuals who are carriers of the short allele are at a higher risk for developing poorly in adverse environments (van IJzendoorn, Belsky, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2012). Moreover, vulnerable children who are genetically predisposed to antisocial behavior, as such with low-MAOA activity, are at a double risk when placed in an extremely negative environment.

In adverse environments, the child’s genetic predispositions make them even more susceptible to antisocial and violent behavior. As of today, researchers know that the parent-child relationship can be influenced by a complex interaction between the environment and genetically transmitted traits. As of current, this is unfortunately the extent of child maltreatment GxE interaction studies. In fact, this is the extent of all child maltreatment research that aim to expand common knowledge on the parent-child relationship. It is imperative to the field of child maltreatment to investigate deeper into the relationship between the environment and genetics of the parent-child association to understand causality, direction of causality, and risk factors connected to ITCM.


Previous research has provided strong evidence of familial concentration of child maltreatment. Parents with a history of child maltreatment have higher rates of having CPS reports filed against them for child maltreatment (Widom, Czaja, & Dumont, 2015). The concentration of child maltreatment within families can be explained by both environmental and genetic influences. Currently, the literature on the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment focuses on environmental and developmental influences on children. Unfortunately, this focus fails to consider any interactional effects of the child’s biological predispositions.

It is important to take into account all influences in which may explain antisocial and violent behavior. This is especially true in research that focuses upon ITCM. Accounting for interactive influences between the genetic make-up of the parent and the child and their environment can help refine theoretical etiologies of ITCM. Why we need to look at the co-occurrence of the environment and biology With the application of the biosocial concepts, such as GxE studies, researchers will be able to better determine risk factors for ITCM by utilizing advanced methodologies and theoretical frameworks that take into account all types of influences.

The current literature leaves a large gap in the etiology of ITCM and the subsequent risk factors associated with it. Because of their inability to account for all facets of influence, researchers have hit a dead end. In order to document causality of ITCM, it is imperative that future studies reexamine each environmental risk factor while accounting for genetic effects. Future research should aim to answer the question “Can child maltreatment be passed down through the intergenerational transmission of abuse?” through the use of behavioral genetic design tools, such as GxE longitudinal interaction studies. GxE longitudinal research can be beneficial in describing intergenerational transmission of genetic influences.

GxE interactional studies offer the tools to build better theoretical frameworks. Theoretical frameworks that are stronger and better equipped to explain the variance between generations by accounting for all influences. Child maltreatment studies will benefit from focusing on detangling the complex nature of genetic and environmental influences. Behavioral- genetic designs should be applied in order to know whether genes are influential in ITCM or whether social learning theory may account for ITCM. Once untangled, lawmakers and prevention specialists will be better prepared to provide evidence-based solutions for ITCM. These solutions should include environmental- and genetic-based interventions that focus on reducing the risk factors for ITCM. Need more detail and to wrap it up


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Child Development Under Conditions of Abuse. (2021, Nov 20). Retrieved from