The Cycle of Abuse Can be Broken with Confidence in Parenting


According to a new study, published online in the journal Child Maltreatment, mothers who experienced more kinds of abuse as children — sexual abuse, physical or emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect — have higher levels of self-criticism, and therefore greater doubt in their ability to be effective parents. These beliefs can manifest in their parenting skills.

“If a mom who was maltreated as a child can sustain some strong beliefs in her competency as a mom, then it may help break the cycle of abuse and buffer her children against that kind of experience she had. That is where this research has led us so far,” said lead researcher Louisa Michl, a doctoral student in the department of psychology at the University of Rochester. Intervention programs for mothers at-risk, therefore, should focus on boosting self-confidence, not just teach parenting skills, the researchers said.

The study involved mothers who were clinically depressed, as well as those who were not. All were from low-income households.

“We know that maltreated children can have really low self-esteem,” said Michl. “And when they become adults, we’ve found that some of these moms become highly self-critical about their ability to parent effectively. Research has shown that this type of self-doubt is related to poor parenting — yelling, hitting, and other kinds of negative parenting behaviors.”

“Our research shows that self-criticism leads to lower-confidence in parenting abilities in previously maltreated mothers and this was true in non-depressed moms as well as depressed mothers,” she added. “For families living in poverty, daily stresses can quickly add up, and parenting, which can be challenging for anyone, can become overwhelming.”

Previous research has found that a mother’s confidence is closely linked to her motivation to use positive child-rearing strategies. “When a mom has confidence in her ability to use positive strategies when under stress, like when her child throws a tantrum in a grocery store, then she is more likely to parent effectively,” explained Michl, who is also a clinical therapist.

Currently, most parenting interventions are simply “how-to” programs. They teach new moms how to feed and burp their babies, explains Michl, and what to do if the baby cries.

“That’s all well and good — moms can learn those skills,” said Michl. “But what happens when they are in a stressful situation? What do they do? If they don’t have the attitude — the belief that they can do this, that they can be a good mom and enact all those things they learned — then they may fall back on how they themselves were treated as children.”

Michl hopes that community services that offer intervention support will focus more on the mother’s mental health and teach her that her critical self-beliefs could be getting in the way of believing she can be a good parent.

“Making sure moms have good parenting skills is really important. But we can support these moms in a more holistic way: provide her the facts, but also help her to believe in herself.”

This is something infant massage classes can help with. Mothers who learn to massage their babies – in OUR classes – learn more than just the strokes. Each class builds confidence as well.