Tests of the mitigating effects of caring and supportive relationships in the study of abusive disciplining over two generations

J Adolesc Health. 2013 Oct;53(4 Suppl):S18-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.04.009.


Purpose: To examine evidence of the continuity in abusive discipline across two generations (G1 and G2) and the role of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships (SSNRs) as protective factors.

Methods: Data are from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, a prospective investigation of the causes and consequences child maltreatment that began in the 1970s with a sample of 457 children and their parents. Data were most recently collected in 2008-2010 from 80% of the original child sample (N = 357) when they were adults age 36 years on average. Of those assessed as adults, 268 participants (G2s) were parenting children and thus comprise the analysis sample. Analyses examined the association between harsh physical discipline practices by G1 parents and G2's reports of similarly severe discipline practices used in parenting their own children. Analyses also investigated the direct and interactive (protective) effects of SSNR variables that pertain to the care, warmth, and support children received from their mothers, fathers, and siblings over their lifetimes. A measure of an adult partner's warmth and support was also included. A case-level examination of G2 harsh discipliners was included to investigate other forms of past and more recent forms of abuse exposure.

Results: Results show a significant predictive association between physical discipline by G1 and G2 parents (β = .30; p < .05; odds ratio, 1.14; confidence interval, 1.04-1.26), after accounting for childhood socioeconomic status and gender. Whereas being harshly disciplined as a child was inversely related to reports of having had a caring relationship with one's mother (r = -.25; p < .01), only care and support from one's father predicted a lower risk of harsh physical discipline by G2s (β = -.24; p < .05; odds ratio, .74; confidence interval, .59-.92). None of the SSNR variables moderated the effect of G1 discipline on G2 discipline. A case-level examination of the abusive histories of G2 harsh discipliners found they had in some instances been exposed to physical and emotional abuse by multiple caregivers and by adult partners.

Conclusions: There is continuity in physical disciplining over two generations. SSNRs measured in this study did not mediate or moderate the effect of G1 on G2 harsh physical discipline, although care and support from fathers was inversely related to the likelihood of G2 harsh physical discipline. This relationship is independent of abuse in childhood. Research is needed to identify factors that interrupt the intergenerational continuity of harsh physical (abusive) disciplining so that promising interventions can be developed and implemented.

Keywords: Intergenerational abuse; Mitigating factor; Protective factor; Safe, stable, nurturing, relationship.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / prevention & control*
  • Child Abuse / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Empathy*
  • Family Relations
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intergenerational Relations*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Partners / psychology*
  • Social Class
  • Social Support*