Intergenerational Transmission of the Effects of Abuse

It has been estimated that as many as 30 percent of child abuse victims go on to abuse their own children. However, Jennie Noll’s intergenerational work focuses on the complex network of risk factors that may be operating in the lives of children born to childhood abuse victims and how many of these children are at risk for:

  • Being abused or neglected either at the hands of their own caregivers or by other violent or exploitive individuals who are allowed access to vulnerable children
  • Various deleterious consequences of having a caregiver who suffers from the emotional and psychiatric sequelae of his / her own childhood abuse 

Results from our three-generation study indicate that abused mothers were also more likely to be high  school dropouts, obese and have experienced psychiatric problems, substance and alcohol dependence and domestic violence. Offspring born to mothers with histories of abuse were more likely to be born preterm, have a cognitive deficit, adopt an insecure attachment style, have a teenage mom, and be involved in child protective services (CPS) than were comparison offspring. Thus, these data provide some of the first evidence for an intergenerational transmission of childhood maltreatment, and demonstrate the compounded deleterious effects on offspring of teen mothers who were also abused in childhood. Noll’s intergenerational work underscores the potential advantages of intervention and prevention programs for victims of childhood maltreatment and their families. Primary prevention / intervention efforts extending throughout development and focusing on the cumulative risk to offspring will likely improve victim outcomes and curtail intergenerational transmission of adversity.

Our ongoing longitudinal study the Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS), originally conducted by Penny Trickett and Frank Putnam, is one of the longest ongoing studies of female development and childhood sexual abuse and is now entering its 25th year of funding. Participants were originally recruited from the Washington, DC, area 1987 and are now all over the country. The chief aims are to learn more about female development and how the effects of adverse development are transmitted across generations. We are also exploring how the environment interacts with biology to impact adjustment and resilience.

Grant Funding

20-year intergenerational longitudinal follow-up of females abused as children.
Principal Investigator Noll: NIH/NICHD R03HD060604

Cortisol Activity and Sexual Abuse: Effects across development.
Principal Investigator Noll: NIH/NICHD R03 HD045346

The Offspring of Maltreated Mothers: Prenatal and Infant Health.
Principal Investigator Noll: NIH/NICHD K01 HD41402

Transgenerational risk factors for the abused sample of the study.
Figure A - Click to enlarge.
Transgenerational risk for the Comparison sample of the study.
Figure B - Click to enlarge.