Hit the Brakes on the Cycle of Child Abuse!

Written By: Sandamini Liyanage

‘Child abuse’ is a topic taken on by many, and yet, an offence that occurs much too often in the society. ‘Child abuse or maltreatment’ is recognised as “all forms of physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.” As such, child abuse is considered to be four-fold. It is not merely sexual or physical abuse, but it includes neglect and psychological abuse as well.

While there are many areas to discussed in child abuse, the concept that a victim of child abuse may later on turn out to be an abuser himself, has been described and researched widely. Studies have shown that some victims of child abuse may become victims of more abuse later on in their life or may take on the role of becoming abusers themselves. It should be noted that this does not by any means indicate that all persons who had experienced abuse in childhood become abusers. Majority do not! It merely indicates that victims of child abuse are more likely to be perpetrators of similar abuse later on in life than non-victims. The American Society for the Positive Care of Children shows that 30% of children who had endured maltreatment or neglect have shown to contribute to the cycle of child abuse as adults. Another study states that 14.9% of victims of child abuse, between the ages of 21 to 30, had caused maltreatment of children compared to 6.9% of non-victims of abuse.

A child by nature is constantly learning and developing. One significant mode of learning for a child is his/her surrounding environment. An abusive environment is conducive to adverse emotional and behavioural development in the child. The psychological reasoning behind the cycle of child abuse has been explained in several ways. The social bonds and perceptions surrounding an individual is one factor known to refrain a normal person from violent behaviour. In an abusive environment a child does not experience the said social bonds as does a normal child. This can facilitate abusive behaviour in the child himself later on. A child who is experiencing abuse or maltreatment may even pick up these actions or behaviour from their adults and impose them on others. Research has shown that these undesirable experiences can alter the functioning of the child’s brain, cause developmental delay and behavioural problems leading to differences in the way they react to stimuli.

Experiencing an unwholesome environment in early childhood tends to cause low self esteem, antisocial behaviour and violence. This in turn may precipitate difficulty in school, difficulty with peers, etc. As the child enters adolescence this may cause more violent behaviour, tendency to do crimes and more antisocial behaviour in turn leading to the person being abusive in relationships and continuing the cycle of abuse.

Some risk factors have shown to be more related to child maltreatment by persons who have a history of abuse. They include individual factors such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, mental illnesses, etc., and family factors such as poverty, low income, living with step parents, less social support, etc. Parents with a history of abuse may not have the capacity to cope up with certain stressors.

This ‘vicious cycle’ is an important aspect of child abuse. If broken it may help prevent someone from becoming an abuser as well as help prevent another from falling prey to abuse. If so, what can be done to break the cycle?

Social support is key! If safe and caring relationships with loved ones and children are carefully cultivated early on, it will lead to a more wholesome outcome.

More often than not abuse occurs under the roof of one’s home. When children speak up to other adults in the family, they may tend to turn a blind eye in denial. Keeping children from harms way is the utmost responsibility of a parent or adult. As a parent, listen to your children about their problems and find out the truth. Teach the kids about their body and about ‘good touch’ and ‘ bad touch’. This will help prevent harm at the hands of others. Always try to set boundaries and interact with children in an appropriate way. Reward them when they do well, but don’t isolate them or punish them harshly if they don’t.

Ask for help! As adults we sometimes feel reluctant to seek help. For an adult who has faced adversity in their childhood, help from professionals will be a healing hand. It will help ensure that what they had endured as a child is carried forward no more. Overcoming the childhood trauma will go a long way in terms of building healthy relationships as adults. Use parenting resources if you are unsure. There is no shame or weakness in seeking help.

Childhood is short and it will be gone before you know it. Children deserve to enjoy this carefree period of their lives. They are the future of our nation and it is our duty to safeguard our future at all costs. It’s time to turn the tables and put a stop to child abuse!


  1. United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, Definition of child abuse or maltreatment.
  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway, Integration Patterns of Child Maltreatment: What the evidence shows.
  3. American Society for the Positive Care of Children, Child Maltreatment Statistics in the U. S.
  4. Thornberry, T., et al, (2013) Breaking the Cycle of Maltreatment: The Role of Safe, Stable and Nurturing Relationships, Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(4 0)
  5. Currie, J. Tekin, E. (2012) Understanding the Cycle: Childhood Maltreatment and Future Crime, Journal of Human Resources, 47(2), 509-549.
  6. Violence and Injury Prevention Programme WHO Regional Office for Europe, The cycles of violence: The relationship between childhood maltreatment and risk of later becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence.
  7. Hartney, E. (2020) Breaking the Cycle of Abuse, verywellmind.

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