Recently I asked a friend via text what she thought of the term ‘Cycle of Abuse?’
“I feel it is a poorly thought through “catch all” phrase that has somehow become entrenched in the literature. It pisses me off because it does a disservice to the vast percentages of survivors of all kinds of abuse who never go on to repeat the abuse that they have been subjected to. It’s also an insult and really an extension of the original abuse in that you can never escape the inferences thereafter. Hey, that’s just my opinion…..but what would I know??!!!!”
My friend knows plenty because she was subjected to physical abuse as a child. And like most survivors she has no input into the discourse around the physical abuse of children or child abuse in general. Being child-free she cannot definitively prove that she would not have repeated The Cycle.
The Cycle of Abuse (COA) paradigm is a heuristic that has become the dominant explanatory device for child abuse. The concept seemed to take hold in the 1980s. Oprah Winfrey may have been influential using the expression freely in the 1980s and 1990s. The New Zealand Herald in New Zealand took it up, frequently using it in headlines. Repeatedly I would read an article with COA in the title and be bemused as within the content there would be zero evidence of a cycle of any kind. Possibly editors instructed their journalists to include COA in any story about child abuse.
It appeals because of its simplicity. Social learning theory underpins it. This theory explains that one way children learn is to imitate adult behavior. But this is only one way in which children and young adults learn. The cycle of abuse paradigm is a form of contagion theory. It gives the impression that once infected one passes the infection on.
It appeals because it is such a simple idea. It is understandable that the dominance of the COA paradigm has influenced the general population’s thinking about child abuse. However people in the field of social work or education should keep abreast of current research literature in their field. An inquiring mind should question a pat phrase that has become omnipresent.
Secondly it appeals because it excuses inexcusable adult behavior toward children. The COA point of view promotes the idea that parents abuse their children not because doing so enables the parent to vent their anger or satisfy their libido. Rather the parent is acting out their own psychic trauma. And therefore the parent is not seen as reprehensible but rather a victim.
It took hold in New Zealand due to CYPFS using ‘Breaking the Cycle’ as their logo for approximately two decades. Apparently Saatchi and Saatchi were responsible for this gem. NGO’s contracted to work with CYPF then would emblazon ‘breaking the cycle’ on their literature to show their connection to the mothership, so to speak.
One problem with the concept is that it is non specific. Does it mean children who were physically abused as children will become adults who physically abuse? Or children who were sexually abused will go on to sexually abuse their own children? It is wide and vague. Its broadest application is that a child who is abused in some way in their childhood is likely to become an adult who abuses their own children in some way. It’s a one size fits all kind of theory.
It is somewhat understandable that CYFs social workers might come to believe that the theory is a solid one. They no doubt see inter-generational abuse. However what they do not see is the thousands of adults who were abused as children who go on to become exemplary parents. Their sample is skewed.
I was travelling in a car with a social worker and she explained she was about to visit a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. This woman needed support, she said to prevent her from going on to abuse her own children. I replied:
“I don’t believe that women who were sexually abused as children go on to abuse their own children”.
To which she replied, “Oh no you are wrong they do”
I replied, “Tell me then, how do they abuse their own children?” and after a considerable pause she replied,
“They are over protective of their own children”.
Being protective of children was not child abuse last time I checked. Some would view walking primary age children to school as a responsible thing to do whilst others might view it as overly protective. In the anecdote above the mother was the victim of a confirmation bias. Behavior that could be viewed as acceptable in a woman who experienced a safe childhood can be deemed maladaptive in the CSA survivor.
The problem with the Cycle of Abuse concept is that it is woefully simplistic and woefully inaccurate. Furthermore as my friend conveyed it is hurtful to survivors.
What is a Cycle?
Merriam-Webster 2: a course or series of events that recur regularly and usually lead back to the starting point
The research literature on child abuse is vast and this a blog, not a Masters thesis. I did a quick consult online and found the following recent statistics regarding the COA.
From the Child Welfare Information Gateway:
‘Research suggests about one-third of individuals who were abused or neglected as children will subject their
children to maltreatment.’
And under the title The cycles of violence-WHO/Europe – World Health Organization:
‘Nevertheless, the majority of individuals who experienced maltreatment as a child are not violent toward their
own children…only a minority of parents with a history of childhood abuse go on abuse their own children.’
‘ …about 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the cycle of abuse’.
Apparently the COA paradigm is particularly disturbing for male survivors of child sexual abuse.
Addressing the victim to offender cycle/Living Well states:
‘12% of men who were sexually abused in childhood went on to commit sexual offences.’
‘ the idea of the ‘victim-to-offender cycle causes distress in its own right. It is not only popular media and public myths about male sexual abuse that promotes the victim to offender model.’
These male survivors also frequently encountered professionals who:
‘are misinformed about the links between being sexually abused and sexual offending.’ and consequently were treated by said professionals as potential criminals.
To conclude, the horse has bolted regarding the dissemination of the COA explanatory device in the public arena. But it is time those working in the field got up to speed with the current research data. If they use the COA as an explanatory device in their work they should immediately follow it up with the relevant statistics.
Can a behavior that occurs 30 to 33% of the time even be called a cycle?
References retrieved from: