Atlanta, GA

University of Georgia's research reveals parents with history of childhood abuse might pass on emotional problems

Sophie-Ann McCulloch

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ATLANTA — Boys are more vulnerable when their parents have poor coping mechanisms, according to a study. Related research in the field has also linked childhood trauma and abuse to a myriad of health problems in adulthood.

The research from the University of Georgia argues that a history of childhood maltreatment may have negative consequences for the children of people who were abused or neglected in childhood.

An essential part of parenting is teaching your children how to manage their emotions. That can be a difficult task for people who were abused as children. People who were frequently mistreated as children may feel difficult to identify their feelings and implement coping strategies.

This difficulty, in turn, can pose a negative impact on their children’s emotional development.

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

The lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, Kimberly Osborne, commented, “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,”

“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,” she added.

The study included 101 children and their primary caregivers. The parents filled out a questionnaire about childhood neglect, trauma, and abuse, as well as a survey about their ability to control their emotions. Under the watch of their parents, the researchers measured children’s heart rate variability — an established measure of emotional regulation — at rest and during a stressful activity using an electrocardiogram.

Regardless of their parents’ history of childhood trauma or emotion regulation skills, the female participants demonstrated emotional regulation difficulties under stress. On the other hand, the male participants were more exposed to emotional regulation difficulties when their parents also had a similar challenge.

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