Parents Abused as Children May Pass on Emotional Issues

Summary: Adults who were mistreated as children often have a difficult time managing their emotions and find it hard to implement emotional regulation strategies. Their difficulties can, in turn, harm their own children’s emotional development.

Source: University of Georgia

Childhood abuse and trauma are linked to many health issues in adulthood. New research from the University of Georgia suggests that a history of childhood mistreatment could have negative ramifications for the children of people who experienced abuse or neglect in childhood.

Teaching your children how to manage their emotions is an integral part of parenting. For people who experienced childhood abuse, that can become a difficult task. People who were frequently mistreated as children may find it hard to identify their emotions and implement strategies to regulate them. This difficulty, in turn, can harm their kids’ emotional development.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, found that parents with a history of childhood abuse or neglect often had difficulty accepting negative emotions, controlling impulsive responses and using emotional regulation strategies, among other emotion regulation issues. Further, many of those parents with emotional regulation difficulties passed that trait down to their children.

“Parents implicitly and explicitly teach their children how to regulate their emotions. I’ve worked with young toddlers, and when you’re teaching them about their emotions, you can see how malleable that skill is,” said Kimberly Osborne, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Science.

“It’s a lot harder to train someone to manage their emotions later in life. If we can understand the transmission pathways and the risks of regulation difficulties later in life, then we can use this research for prevention and to equip people with better skills so that the pattern doesn’t continue.”

Measuring emotional regulation

The study focused on 101 youth and their primary caregivers. The parents took a questionnaire to measure childhood neglect, trauma and abuse, along with a survey that gauged their own ability to control their emotions. Researchers measured children’s heart rate variability, an established measure of emotional regulation, at rest and during a stressful activity using an electrocardiogram while their parent watched.

The female participants showed emotional regulation difficulties under stress regardless of their parents’ history of childhood trauma or emotion regulation skills. At the same time, boys were specifically more vulnerable to emotional regulation difficulties when their parents also struggled with emotion regulation.

“I think that that speaks to the gendered way our society socializes emotion in boys versus girls,” Osborne said. “We don’t have data to test this, so I’m pulling more from theory and past research, but I think that girls receive more coaching on how to regulate their emotions from teachers, older siblings and peers than boys do. So if boys are not receiving that from their parents, then they may be at greater risk for self-regulation difficulties.”

In particular, parents who reported being unable to set aside negative emotions to pursue their goals–such as getting work done despite being in a bad mood–were more likely to have children who likewise found it difficult to regulate their emotions during stressful experiences.

Modeling healthy responses to stress

Although having a history of childhood trauma doesn’t predestine an individual to pass down their experiences to their children, Osborne said it is something to be aware of. Modeling habits like taking a pause before reacting to stressful situations to assess how you’re feeling can go a long way in teaching children how they should respond to challenges.

This shows a young girl crying in a doorway
Teaching your children how to manage their emotions is an integral part of parenting. Image is in the public domain

“From a very young age, the best thing to do is to just reflect back to the child what they are experiencing,” Osborne said. “If you see a child crying, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. What happened?’ you can say, ‘You’re crying. I can see that you’re sad. What made you sad?’ That A, defines the emotion for them so it’s helping them identify that emotion, and B, it encourages them to reflect on what happened and to tell you in their own words what caused the emotion.

“It’s similar to how if you had a parent with alcoholism, you may have learned to stay away from alcohol and may want to teach your kids to do the same. It’s important to tell them, ‘We have a tendency not to regulate our emotions well, so we are going to keep tabs on it together to make sure that this doesn’t develop into something more harmful for you later.'”

Coauthors of this study include UGA researchers Margaret O’Brien Caughy and Assaf Oshri, and Erin Duprey, of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Funding: This study was funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health and partially supported through the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

About this emotional development research news

Source: University of Georgia
Contact: Kimberly Osborne – University of Georgia
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Parents’ Maltreatment Histories, Dimensions of Emotion Regulation, and Connections to Offspring Self-Regulation: A Sex-Specific Transmission Pathway” by Kimberly Osborne et al. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment


Parents’ Maltreatment Histories, Dimensions of Emotion Regulation, and Connections to Offspring Self-Regulation: A Sex-Specific Transmission Pathway

Parents with childhood maltreatment histories are at risk for emotion regulation (ER) problems, which are associated with reduced self-regulation among their offspring. However, gaps remain in the literature regarding this indirect transmission pathway.

First, ER consists of multiple dimensions and it is unclear which dimension is most affected by childhood maltreatment. Second, less is known regarding which parental ER dimension is linked to offspring self-regulation. Thus, the present study aimed to examine the direct and indirect associations between parental maltreatment histories and child self-regulatory capacity via dimensions of parental ER.

In this cross-sectional study, 101 youth (75% African American/Black; 53% female; Mage = 10.28; SD = 1.19) and their primary caregivers were recruited from a low-income community in the Southeastern United States. Structural equation modeling was used to model the effect of parents’ self-reported childhood maltreatment on youth physiological self-regulation (measured by heart rate variability reactivity [HRV-R]), via parents’ self-reported ER.

Parental maltreatment history was significantly associated with five of the six components of ER. Further, the indirect effect of parents’ childhood maltreatment on child HRV-R was significant when parents reported more difficulty engaging goal-directed behaviors.

Moderation analyses by sex showed that daughters had greater dysregulation regardless of parental maltreatment histories, while parents’ ER was found to play a more significant role in the intergenerational transmission of dysregulation to sons.

The current study extends the literature on self-regulation development in children of low-income, maltreatment-exposed parents. Our study may inform parent-child interventions for improving self-regulation.

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