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How do we break the devastating cycle of intergenerational abuse?

Call for action to help distressed families and br
Photo: How do we break the devastating cycle of intergenerational abuse?
A spotlight is being shone again on the confronting topic of intergenerational abuse, with one expert calling for urgent intervention and funding to help break the cycle and protect future generations. 

“When a child's behaviour is off the wall because they are found to have brain cancer, then we throw everything we have at it to help”, said Professor Leonie Segal from UniSA.

“But if a young child is struggling because they're living in a really chaotic, distressed and disturbed family, they're lucky if they get anything. We’re just not doing enough in this space.”

“There's a lot of people out there who recognise that this is something we have to act on, yet every time we just hear ‘we don't have the money’”, she said.
“But really, if we all decided that this was an important priority, we would find the money.”

Professor Segal recently led a study which revealed an alarmingly clear link between parents who have suffered abuse and the likelihood of their children suffering the same fate.

The data showed that 30 percent of the children of mothers with substantiated maltreatment as a child were also the subject of substantiated maltreatment by age 12. In comparison, for children of mothers with no history of child protection contact, the rate of substantiated abuse was just five per cent.

“What we uncovered was a much greater risk ratio than what we've seen in other studies”, Professor Segal told HealthTimes.

“I wasn’t so much surprised by our results, but more surprised that other studies haven’t also found these high-risk ratios.”

Professor Segal said the findings underscored the urgent need to do more to help these children and families – from early in life into adulthood – not just for their own well-being, but also to protect their unborn children and future generations.

“The results are especially concerning given the generally poor outcomes for victims of child abuse or neglect across multiple health and social domains,” Professor Segal explained.

“Abused children often grow into adults with poor impulse control, a heightened sense of shame, an over-alertness to threat, easily triggered, with extreme levels of distress that can result in early substance use and mental illness, compounding harms.”

“When these children become parents, their capacity for compassion or trust can be impaired, they often cannot see the needs of their own children, and can find it extremely difficult to provide the nurturing parenting that they would so want to
offer.”

While a confronting field of research to work within, Professor Segal said that “I’m a human being, and I know that we need to do more.”

“You know that the early stage in life is so profound in terms of your whole world view and how you get on in society.”

“Some people do overcome a difficult and adverse start to life, but for some people it's a huge part of how they engage with the world. If infants aren’t looked after properly, we know that they don’t thrive.”

“So, on one level, the theory clearly says this is a really powerful area, yet we are doing so very little in this space.”

“For example, when you look at the health budget, most of it goes towards the last years of life – to the elderly and people with chronic conditions like heart disease”, Professor Segal said.

“Of the little budget that goes towards mental health, a tiny amount goes towards children and adolescents, and even less towards infants.”

“And we know these people are bumping up against and going between services all the time, but no one is taking an interdisciplinary view on these most distressed families.”

Professor Segal said that in South Australia, there is a “lovely” network of children’s centres that start caring for children in infancy up until the start of school.

“That’s a huge opportunity we have to help these children, and work in association with their parents – because to heal the child you really need to heal the child parent relationship”

“If we can do this, these children are much less likely to abuse their own children, we could stop that giant pathway into child maltreatment.”

“Most kindergarten or early childhood workers will tell you which children are distressed. What can come across as challenging, naughty or difficult behaviour is usually because a child is distressed.”

“Even if we could change the way we look at it, that would make a difference.”

“We don't have investment in infant mental health, there's no one to refer these children to. We just don't have the services in place that we need to help”, Professor Segal said.

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.