The Impact of Childhood Trauma History on Parenting Abilities in Adulthood
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
This is a research based article examining the relationship between childhood trauma and parenting in adulthood. Parental emotion regulation and coping skills in dealing with stressful events in life have a significant impact on the child’s emotional and social development, especially during infancy and early school years. Children typically learn to regulate their emotions better if their parents manage their own stress well. In contrast, unsupportive, distressed parenting can induce less effort in children to regulate their emotions and use effective coping skills in response to stress. (Barry & Kochanska, 2010).
Although there is a significant body of research investigating the influence of parental emotion regulation on children’s coping skills (Morris, Morris, Silk, Steinberg, Aucoin, & Keyes, 2011), only few studies have investigated the impact of parental history of childhood trauma (such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect) on the parent’s ability to create a supportive family environment. The family system is crucial for the children’s social and emotional development as it provides them with the first opportunities to develop their own self-regulation skills.
Maladaptive Adult Outcomes of Childhood Trauma
Based on the existing body of research and literature, there is a positive relationship between childhood trauma (CT) experience and maladaptive outcomes across all aspects of adulthood, including mental health problems, substance abuse, relational and social difficulties, externalizing behaviors, emotion dysregulation, and subsequently poor parenting (Ehrensaft, Cohen, Knous-Westfall, & Chen, 2015). Children who are maltreated by their caretakers at a young age lose an opportunity to learn how to effectively regulate their emotions. Later in adolescence and adulthood, this loss translates into problematic social and romantic relationships, and subsequently insufficient or dysfunctional parenting. This creates an intergenerational cycle during which the parents expose their children to “toxic stress,” known to have a damaging impact on the developing brain, as noted by Briggs, Silver, Krug, Mason, Schrag, Chinitz, and Racine (2014). In other research studies, the parents with a history of CT experience acknowledged a reduced ability to create a positive family environment and to engage in positive social interactions with their children (O’Neal, Richardson, Mancini, & Grimsley, 2016). In addition, mental health issues resulting from history of CT, such as Conduct Disorder in adolescence and Generalized Anxiety Disorder in adulthood, also tend to mediate poor parenting practices and child maltreatment (Ehrensaft et al., 2015).
Jones, Cassidy, and Shaver (2014) suggested that both children and their parents have unique “attachment behavioral systems” which reflect in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors within the parent-child relationship. In addition, in the family system, the parents’ marital or romantic relationship also has an important impact on the parent-child relationship. Thus, it is important to consider the possibility that certain characteristic of the child or of the romantic partner can trigger or decrease the negative impact of the other parent’s negative or poor parenting. In their research study, Szepsenwol, Simpson, Griskevicius, and Raby (2015) explained that exposure to maltreatment and poor parenting in childhood leads to development of negative expectations and suspicion of being mistreated by others. These expectations and general mistrust are reflected in the individuals’ inability to relate to others and form positive relationships even with their own children.
Bert, Guner, and Lanzi (2009) suggested that it is possible that mothers with a history of CT may have a lower tolerance for their children’s displays of emotions and misbehavior. These mothers thus experience a significantly higher level of parenting stress and frustration and tend to use harsher parenting practices. The children of these mothers then internalize the harsh parenting practices as effective means to get the results they seek and eventually apply them in their interactions with their own children.
Biological and Neuropsychological Perspective
DeGregorio (2013) described a neuroimaging research technology in the field of CT that shows a link between child maltreatment, compromised brain development, and subsequent deficit in the social, emotional, and cognitive development. According to the author, these deficits then impact the children’s ability to function well in their everyday lives and manage stressful life situations. As noted by DeGregorio (2013), parents with CT history may have difficulty recognizing and responding to their children’s needs due to deficits in their own neurodevelopment, especially their decreased capacity for emotion recognition and self-regulation. Thus, according to this author, any parenting intervention should be preceded by neuropsychological assessment of parents with CT history to identify the affected brain systems to help restore their functioning. However, much research needs to be completed in this area to determine specific neuropsychological profiles associated with different types of trauma.
In their research study, Lehrner and Yehuda (2018) presented a different perspective on this issue. The authors suggested that it is not the parental exposure to CT itself, but rather parental coping and recovery from trauma that mediates child maltreatment. The authors suggested that if the victimized parents have an opportunity to process their CT experience and work through it, they may be able to develop resilience rather than maladaptive outcomes. According to Lehrner and Yehuda (2018), trauma related changes in the brain could be simply demonstrating an ability to adapt to environmental and psychological stressors. In addition, these authors also emphasize the ability of human beings to adjust and be in control of their own responses and reactions.
In their research study, Briggs et al., (2014) effectively utilized the intervention program, Healthy Steps (HS). In this program, a developmental specialist, such as a social worker or a psychologist, works alongside a pediatrician in a pediatric practice. The goal of this intervention is to educate the caretakers about their children’s development and behavior. In their study, the authors focused specifically on using this intervention model to address the parents’ trauma and the children’s social-emotional development. The results suggest that intervention programs, such as HS can be used to screen and identify high-risk families and prevent child maltreatment by educating the parents and increasing positive parenting practices. Other studies suggest that some parents could benefit from interventions addressing their emotional disengagements and self-regulation skills, as well as from learning how to better connect with their child (Ehrensaft et al., 2015). Bert et al., (2009) also mentions providing parent-training programs that educate parents about appropriate parenting practices, beliefs, and behaviors.
Limitations and Discrepancies
Although the research findings show a strong link between history of CT and parenting difficulties, there are many gaps and unanswered questions regarding this topic. For example, not all adults who were maltreated as children experience high levels of parenting stress. Specifically, in their study, Berlin, Appleyard, and Dodge (2011) found that compared to mothers who were not victims of physical abuse in their childhood, the mothers who experienced such abuse were 20% more likely to have children who were physically abused by age 26 months. However, it is important to note that children of 83% of mothers with a childhood history of physical abuse did not become victimized by age 26 months. Similarly, in another study, Skowron, Kozlowski, and Pincus (2010) demonstrated that even individuals with negative early childhood caretaker experiences were capable of loving and caring parenting.
Despite the commonalities and overall agreement among scholars and practitioners, there are some discrepancies and limitations in the current literature on this topic. This is likely due to the many variables and factors that need to be taken into consideration. For example, the assessment of parental CT is often based on a self-report and a recollection which could be inaccurate and incomplete. The type of CT (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, etc.) and the length and reoccurrence of CT could potentially also affect the severity of maladaptive outcomes in parenting, and in adulthood in general. In addition, the socioeconomic and demographic factors, such as parental gender, age, education, and income, are considered by some researchers, but not by others (Berlin et al., 2011). Interestingly, some studies show that despite of a strong connection between poverty and parenting stress, both lower and high-income parents with a history of CT are prone to experience a higher amount of parenting stress (Steele, Bate, Steele, Dube, Danskin, Knafo, Nikitiades, Bonuck, Meissner, & Murphy, 2016). In contrast, Briggs et al., (2014) suggest that children growing up in poverty are more likely to become maltreated because their caretakers are more likely to have suffered CT.
It appears that further research is necessary to address these discrepancies. Deeper understanding of why and how some parents with a history of CT become dysfunctional caretakers while others don’t, would be helpful in prevention and effective development and use of therapeutic and educational interventions. Also, it appears to be of an utmost importance to assess how to effectively nurture and heal the parents with CT experiences. Every year, hundreds of children are placed in foster care due to abuse, neglect, or another form of maltreatment. To get their children back, the parents must complete a case plan formulated by the state Department of Children Services. The parents are typically required to maintain stable lifestyle and attend parenting classes. The parents are rarely screened for trauma and only very few of them receive a psychological evaluation or therapy. The children that are reunited with their parents frequently return to foster care in a short amount of time due to the same concerns. The children have typically received needed services; however, the most important issue of addressing the parental history of CT is rarely addressed or resolved. Therapists, educators, and social workers who are working with these vulnerable families would benefit greatly from understanding the specific link between the parents’ trauma history and their poor parenting abilities. Such understanding would have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the reunification process.
The questions to be asked are whether the parents need social support, reduction of social isolation, specific parenting education, or psychotherapy. Effective assessment tools and interventions would reduce child maltreatment and the repeated placement of children in foster care, as well as facilitate healthy emotional and social development in children. In addition, further research examining positive influence of the child’s love and affection on emotional well-being and parenting efforts of the traumatized parents would be a useful addition to the existing literature.
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