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Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse

How to Avoid Repeating Sexual Abuse With Your Own Children

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Updated May 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Child abuse is known to repeat itself from generation to generation. Although not universal, the children of people with addictions are at higher risk of all types of abuse, and of developing addictions. The reasons why people who were sexually abused in childhood go on to have abusive relationships in adulthood, either as an abuser or as a victim, are complex and well documented. But does the experience of child abuse mean that abusive relationships are inevitable?

Absolutely not. By following these tips, you can break the cycle of child abuse and learn to have strong, nurturing relationships with your own children.

1. Get Help For Yourself

Although many parents consider it selfish, getting help for yourself is one of the most important steps in breaking the cycle of child abuse. By overcoming the trauma of what happened to you, you can become more objective about your parents' behavior and your own behavior, and make wiser decisions about how to parent your own children. You will also release the emotional baggage you have been carrying around with you since your own childhood abuse, which will make you less prone to mood swings, anger management problems, and the use of addictive substances and behaviors as a way of managing stress.

Get help for dealing with past abuse, and for your addiction. If your partner has an addiction, encourage them to get help, too.

2. Learn Good Boundaries

We hear a lot about "boundaries" but its common to not really understand or know what boundaries are or how to set them.  Boundaries are the limits you set, which define what kinds of behavior are acceptable or unacceptable.  Boundaries are important for both children and parents.  The parent needs to use boundaries to control their own behavior towards their child -- to prevent themselves from crossing the line to abuse -- and they need to set good boundaries for their children, so that their children know what is expected of them. 

To some extent, boundaries vary from person to person, and family to family.  But your boundaries always need to keep your child safe from injury, neglect, exposure to non-medicinal drug use and sexual contact.

3. Meet Your Emotional Needs Through Adult Relationships

Child abuse can start with the parent thinking highly of the child, and believing they have a close, loving relationship. The adult may begin to depend on the child for things that they should be providing for themselves, or getting from other adults. This includes getting emotional needs met, by seeing the child as someone you can offload your feelings onto, and someone who will give you sympathy, understanding, and unconditional love. Although children need to learn to care for others, they should not be used to meet their parents' emotional needs. Doing so puts a burden on the child that they are not ready for.

4. Keep Your Sexual Outlets Seperate From Your Relationship With Your Child

Most adults need some kind of sexual outlet. This may be expressed through a healthy relationship with another adult, or through masturbation in private. Admitting to yourself your need for a sexual outlet is important in protecting your child from abuse. Parents may not realize that their sexual frustration can "spill over" into their relationship with their child, through talking about sex in front of the child (or directly to them) before they are ready, making suggestive comments, telling obscene jokes, through commenting on the child in a sexual way, or through sexual contact. This is unfair to the child, who has not yet learned appropriate sexual boundaries, and should be able to trust their parents not to be sexual with them.

5. Protect Your Child From Others

Sexual abuse can happen within the family, but can also occur when other people the child knows are able to abuse them.  Sexual abuse by strangers is actually relatively uncommon -- most victims and abusers know each other.   Part of your job as a parent is to protect your child from other people who might abuse them, including your partner. You should always listen and respond to your child if they tell you someone has abused them. It may seem surprising, but parents can turn a blind eye for years while the other parent or step-parent abuses their child -- this is a classic type of denial.

6. Teach Your Child About Their Body

The research on child abuse is clear -- children who know about their bodies and how they work, and who know the proper names for the parts of the body, rather than made-up or childish names for parts of the body, are less likely to be sexually abused. They are also more able to communicate what has happened to them, and to be taken seriously if they do report abuse. Even though you may feel some negative emotions about sex and sexuality, such as guilt and shame, you should try not to pass these on to your child. Repeat Tip 1 if necessary.

7. Nurture Your Child in Non-Sexual Ways

All children need a balance between discipline (boundaries) and nurturing. People who were sexually abused as children may not know how to nurture their child in healthy ways, so may either use inappropriate nurturing, or may avoid nurturing the child altogether. There is a lot you can do to nurture your child without touching them, for example, by listening to them, taking an interest in their lives, helping them solve problems, playing together, and sharing time together. Warmth is also expressed by looking at, smiling at, and responding to your child. However, affectionate, non-sexual touch through hugging, holding hands, and physical guidance when your child needs it are not abusive, and are also important ways of nurturing your child.

8. Use Praise and Reward Systems to Teach

Children learn through associating good feelings, provided by praise and rewards, with their own actions. Using rewards systems, such as allowing your child to collect points for completing responsibilities, is a good way of teaching positive behavior. Overindulging children by giving them too many rewards without expecting good behavior can leave them vulnerable to manipulation and addictions, because they aren't empowered to earn their own rewards, so seek them out from others. On the other hand, expecting perfect behavior but never rewarding your child will leave them feeling deprived, again, making them vulnerable to people who need only provide a modicum of pleasure to seem very attractive to your child.

9. Avoid the Use of Harsh Punishment

Use of punishment, such as spanking and humiliation, may de-sensitize your child to physical and emotional pain, making them more vulnerable to abuse. There is a lot of overlap between physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and victims consistently report that emotional abuse is the most unbearable form, making them vulnerable to drug use to manage emotional pain. In some cases, pain and negative emotions may become associated with sexual arousal, making your child even more vulnerable to sexual abuse and sex addiction. Use clear boundaries consistently, and rewards systems fairly to help shape your child's behavior. If this isn't enough, seek professional help.

10. Use Parenting Resources

Although you may not have had the experience of a happy, healthy childhood, you can provide this for your child. There are more resources for parents than ever before, including parenting books, parenting groups, and professional help. Don't hold back on making use of these, as often as you need them.

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