Childhood Neglect Perpetuates the Cycle of Violence, Study Finds

By Wesley Myers, Ph.D. Student at the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice

In short, what is the study about?

Our study has the main purpose of subjecting the supportive claims made by Cathy Widom in 1989 about the “Cycle of Violence” to replication and reproduction. The Cycle of Violence hypothesis states that individuals who experience violent, physical abuse as a child will have a greater propensity towards violent, criminal behavior as adults. We first, successfully, reproduced her findings using the original data and the descriptions from the original article. We then subjected these data to more strenuous statistical tests which uncovered some interesting findings. Foremost among these is that the relationship between violent childhood abuse and violent adult behavior is more fragile in these data than previously thought and may in fact be vastly overstated. Additionally, neglect emerged as a much stronger predictor of future violent criminal behavior.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

First, as with all social science research, it should be recognized that all findings are probabilistic in nature. More simply, just because you experience a particular event in your past this will not result in an unavoidable future. With this in mind, our study has served to emphasize the importance of providing services to those who experienced any kind of abuse as a child and not just those who were physically or sexually abused.

The other important take away from this research is the overarching premise that we should treat all research with a skeptical eye and seek both replication and reproduction of all findings. When we place too much importance on a particular idea, act upon it as truth, then later find we are mistaken we may find we have done greater damage than if we had simply ignored the issue entirely. The bottom line: be skeptical of everything you read, seek studies that confirm the findings in broad contexts, and never become so married to an idea that if it proves false it will be detrimental.

How are these findings important in practice?

The findings from our publication should serve as an alarm of sorts to social workers and psychologists, and those with an interest in mental health that ALL forms of childhood abuse have the potential to alter the criminal potential over the life course. The hope is that no practitioners, and the general public by extension, will continue to view children who are neglected as any less abused than children who experience physical or sexual abuse. While the severity of the events are certainly different from an adult perspective, they have the potential to impart very severe physiological trauma.

From a criminological mindset this emphasizes the importance of considering adverse childhood experiences in rehabilitation adult criminals. Essentially, when these experiences are present, more emphasis on counseling and mental health should be present in the treatment plans. While this is often implemented by juvenile justice agencies, most criminal courts are unconcerned and simply “treat” with prison, further exacerbating underlying issues.

Further Readings

For a greater understanding of the development of the Cycle of Violence we suggest reviewing these studies:

For a greater understanding of the importance of replication we recommend:


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Latest update: July 20, 2018
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