Early Abuse Leads to Later Aggression
"There are much more positive ways to discipline," Herrenkohl says. "If, as a parent, you can back off when you feel yourself getting angry ... discipline does not have to be administered instantaneously. A lot depends on the age of the child. Even young children can understand simple explanations. 'You shouldn't touch that, it's dangerous.' Things like spills, which often get parents upset, can't be avoided. There are certain inconveniences to raising children and we, as parents, have to accept them." Herrenkohl also says it's important to be consistent with nonabusive discipline.
"I'm a great believer in talking to children. Explaining to them. I think they understand more than we appreciate," Herrenkohl says. And talking doesn't mean yelling. "Often what's yelled at the child is very destructive. I don't think it has anything but negative, long-term effects. It demonstrates to the child the wrong way of handling emotions. People do get angry and upset. But contrast it to the [practice of using] time-out." The message there, he says, is "you calm down, then we'll talk about it."
Do abused children become abusive adults? Sometimes. "If you look at the larger literature, from between 40% to 60% of parents who are abusers were abused themselves," Herrenkohl says. "There is a link, but it's not a foregone conclusion." One possible reason is the intervention of another, nurturing adult while the child is growing up, and/or the idea that some children are more resilient than others.
"We did a paper years ago on resilient children," Herrenkohl says. "Children abused, but not heading down the pathway to aggressive behavior. We didn't find many of them. In those we did find, a number of them said that as teenagers they decided, 'I'm not going to be the way my parents are.'"