Living our parents’ trauma: Effects of child abuse and neglect on the next generation


Menger Leeman, Joanna Marta. (2018). Living our parents’ trauma: Effects of child abuse and neglect on the next generation [Thesis].
AuthorsMenger Leeman, Joanna Marta
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Hurt and complex trauma resulting from childhood maltreatment has serious consequences for the lifespan development of the survivor (Kezelman, Hossack, Stavropoulos, & Burley, 2015; van der Kolk, 2014). Child abuse and neglect involves a betrayal of trust, care and protection within the very relationships upon which the child relies upon for care (Courtois & Ford, 2013). Psychological trauma arising from child abuse and neglect is referred to as complex, or developmental, trauma (Ford et al., 2013). This accounts for the impact of the trauma on the ongoing development of the child into adulthood. Intergenerational continuity research suggests parents’ childhood experiences and current psychosocial functioning are expressed in their parenting behaviour (K. Kim, Trickett, & Putnam, 2010). Further to this is the idea that unresolved childhood experiences of loss and trauma are repeated in the next generation (Bowlby, 2005; Egeland & Susman-Stillman, 1996). Childhood maltreatment research into intergenerational functioning and relationship outcomes in adults, however, is lacking. This thesis comprised a pilot and three studies investigating retrospective reports of childhood experiences and self-reports of current adult functioning outcomes. Participants’ categorical responses to four items on childhood sexual and physical abuse, and physical and emotional neglect, were used to identify any-abused and not-abused groups. Study 1, Experiences of Individuals investigated the relationship and functioning experiences of individuals between groups with, and without, a history of childhood abuse or neglect. Compared to participants without a history of childhood abuse and neglect, any-abused participants had poorer adult functioning outcomes including higher separation-individuation disturbances, lower perceived current social support, higher psychopathology and higher current trauma symptoms. An effect of cumulative harm was demonstrated in participants who reported more than one category of abuse or neglect. There was a link between accessing psychotherapy and poorer adult functioning outcomes. Multiple predictor variables, including adult functioning outcomes and childhood experiences of psychological abuse, physical neglect and sexual abuse were associated with current trauma symptoms. The findings of Study 1 add to the body of research in which poorer adult functioning and relationship outcomes are found in participants reporting a history of childhood abuse and neglect. Study 2, Intergenerational Continuity, examined intergenerational continuity and discontinuity in the relating and functioning of parent–child participant-dyads, with and without a history of child abuse. An intergenerational impact of the effects of childhood abuse and neglect was supported. Regardless of the participant’s own child maltreatment history, participants with a maltreated parent had, on average, poorer adult functioning outcomes, compared to participants whose parent was not maltreated. Participants who reported a history of child abuse or neglect in both generations had poorer adult functioning outcomes, compared to those in which neither generation reported a history of childhood abuse or neglect. In this research, children with an abused or neglected parent had more trauma symptoms themselves, than children with a not-abused parent. A qualitative third study, Survivors’ Experiences of their Parent, focussed on survivors’ lived experiences of their parent. Survivors’ experiences of their caregiving relationship were explored with a focus on the terms trust, hurt and healing. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) provided a forum for survivors to give voice to their experience and explore their understanding of it. Themes included: a) permanent and generalised distrust and disconnection, b) continued expectation of hurt and anticipation of punishment, c) impact of abuse and neglect on memory, relationships, mental health, adult functioning and self-concept, d) self-protective or protective behaviour, e) slow and difficult healing, f) significant relationships with the other parent and siblings, and g) resilience. Several child abuse survivors wrote that they valued being heard. Being heard and having trauma acknowledged, they felt, may support the healing of other survivors. The lived experience of survivors informs us that, even as adults, their relationship experiences with their parent continue to impact on their relationships with themselves and with others. The current research shows that intergenerational functioning outcomes hold similar implications to outcomes for individuals, and yet has been absent from inclusion in the way we respond, treat and consider complex trauma. The global significance of this research is to shift the focus from the individual effects of childhood maltreatment to a broader understanding of the potential intergenerational effects.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Final version
Publication dates
Online01 Jan 2018
Permalink -

  • 1710
    total views
  • 1068
    total downloads
  • 25
    views this month
  • 15
    downloads this month
These values are for the period from 19th October 2020, when this repository was created.

Export as