The scenes are familiar. A criminal pleads for leniency during sentencing, claiming that his father beat him relentlessly when he was a child, making him the volatile person that his is today. A mother arrested for beating her child says, "I was just following in my mother's footsteps." A newspaper editorial urges us to "stop the cycle of violence," repeating the adage that children who witness or experience a parent's violence will repeat it as adults.
The trouble is that the adage isn't exactly true. Researchers have known for years that exposure to violence as a victim or as an observer increases the chance of becoming violent. But it is far from inevitable.
Yale researchers Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler estimate that, at most, 30 percent of children who have been abused will abuse their own children. Catholic University's Debra Kalmuss found that less than 20 percent of people who have witnessed spousal violence and suffered from child abuse will repeat the violence with a spouse or partner.
Even these percentages need to be placed in perspective: A substantial number of adults who abuse family members never experienced violence in their upbringing. Family violence, whether witnessed or experienced, is deplorable, but it does not account for a significant portion of the cases encountered in the next generation.
Why do we continue to think that violence automatically leads to violence? Therapists often search for a violent childhood when they encounter a violent client. Seeking leniency for a violent offender, lawyers cite the offender's victimization, if they can. These conspicuous examples foster a belief in a cyclical pattern. But, remember, people who have managed to rise above their pasts are less likely to show up at the therapist's office or in court. They are the hidden survivors of family tragedy - and they are numerous.
Who escapes the cycle? Survivors include:
*People who have nonviolent role models, such as teachers or close relatives.
*Those who learn positive methods of conflict resolution and learn to blame perpetrators of violence rather than victims.
*People with good support systems and relatively little economic or social stress.
*Those who live in a cultural environment that does not tolerate the use of violence.
However, knowing the factors that thwart the cycle does not help us to identify who will escape and who will not. Some may experience enormous stress, be socially isolated, and receive no therapy - and yet never become violent. So it is unhelpful and potentially harmful to assume the past predicts the future.
If, for example, it comes out during a child-custody case that one parent suffered an abusive childhood, the judge might unfairly decide that parent is likely to be abusive. The judge might award custody to the parent who wasn't abused, even though the other parent has not shown aggression toward the child. Or imagine the self-inflicted injustice of people underestimating themselves. Victims of violence understand that society labels them "probable abusers." Some might take on the role they believe is expected of them.
When my students and I gathered data that refuted this idea of a cyclical pattern, our paper was abstracted for radio broadcast. Letters from listeners thanked us for giving them hope and peace of mind: Now they believed they weren't doomed to be abusers.
Let's not excuse an adult's violence by attributing it solely to problems in the previous generation. And let's not point our finger at victims of abuse and wait for them to become perpetrators.
*Sharon D. Herzberger, professor of psychology at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., is author of "Violence Within the Family: Social Psychological Perspectives." (Westview).