Children who are abused by their parents tend to grow into child-abusers themselves. A new study shows that this tragic transformation begins much earlier than previously believed.
The nine abused one-to-three-year-olds observed at their day care center already exhibited behavioral characteristics of abusive parents: they reacted with violence when confronted with a child in distress.
The sight and sound of a crying agemate not only aroused no sympathy or concern in these toddlers, but actually provoked reactions ranging from anger and threats to physical attack.
Here they differed markedly from the nine sociologically-matched children in the control group. While all the youngsters in the study came from highly stressed, disadvantaged backgrounds (absent fathers, welfare mothers, poverty), the non-abused kids, like their middle-class counterparts in earlier studies, expressed "concern, empathy or sadness in response to one-third of the distress scenes they witnessed.
None of the abused toddlers ever showed a concerned response, reacting instead with cries of "Cut it out!," hissing, teeth-baring, slapping and even beating the troubled child.
TROUBLE AHEAD The ramifications of these actions are disturbing, Mary Main and Carol George, researchers at University of California, Berkeley, point out in Developmental Psychology. The abused preschoolers not only mirrored their parents' self-isolation and aggression but, like their parents, seemed to respond almost reflexively to the distress of others with fear and anger.
For three of these children, "caregiving and aggressive behaviors seemed to stimulate one another." This finding suggests that "for some parents who had been abused in childhood, a distressed infant could serve as a stimulus for this preexisting pattern of violent reaction," the researchers comment.
"Responses of Abused and Disadvantaged Toddlers to Distress in Agemates"