Many criminal justice questions about the intergenerational transmission of trauma and violence begin too late in a person’s life cycle by focusing on whether and how abuse and neglect from one’s biological family leads to adolescent perpetration of violence. We need to expand the lens to questioning the systems that place children at risk for abuse and neglect. Without this perspective, it is easy to overlook the fact that most of the factors that increase the likelihood that abused and neglected children will develop violent behavior patterns as adolescents are the same factors that increase the likelihood that parents will abuse and neglect their children. The search for direct pathways from experiencing abuse to perpetuating violence also runs contrary to research showing that experiencing neglect appears to be as much of a pathway to adolescent violence as experiencing abuse, suggesting that the pathways are complex and contextual. The intergenerational transmission of trauma and violence is determined by the accumulation of risk factors across one’s life, coupled with a lack of protective factors. This accumulation of exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences has an exponential relationship with the likelihood of poor developmental outcomes: The sum of trauma is greater than the individual parts.
The effects of exposure to violent, traumatic, and adverse life experiences are also not independent from each other. For example, the effect of exposure to chronic housing and food insecurity and chronic community violence are particularly damaging for the emotional and behavioral development of children who are also growing up in homes with “impaired caregiving systems.” Especially for children, trauma occurs when high levels of toxic stress are experienced “in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult relationship.” Supportive caregivers are pivotal in determining whether potentially traumatic experiences will instead be tolerable.
The inconvenient truth about preventing adolescent violence is that children who experience abuse and neglect early in their childhood are significantly more likely to experience subsequent victimization and trauma throughout their life. Some children’s developmental trajectories are repeatedly negatively affected by needing to recover from traumatic life experiences, while other children’s developmental trajectories are advantaged by having to cope with only a limited number of traumatic events that are discrete from their otherwise developmentally supportive environment. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children have a significantly higher likelihood of experiencing chronic trauma without coping supports, and white children have a significantly higher likelihood of experiencing a limited number of traumatic events coupled with coping supports. The risk and protective factors embedded in the systems in which children live are the greatest early opportunities of both prevention before violent behaviors emerge and intervention at the earliest sign of violent behaviors. Formal and informal social policies are large determinants of who gets access to what resources and the extent to which there is a network of preventative social supports.
One important context is the community and the opportunities and constraints afforded by the community in which the family resides, as well as the ability to escape high-risk communities. Community contexts have a large effect on exacerbating or mitigating both the likelihood of exposure to abuse and neglect and the extent to which abuse and neglect will lead to antisocial adolescent behavior. Another context is the schools to which children have access. This is often considered part of the community but is important to highlight separately when considering child and adolescent outcomes. Schools are societally sanctioned and funded contexts that can either reinforce existing oppressions and be sites of retraumatization or provide safe contexts and opportunities for vulnerable children to break intergenerational family trauma and broader oppressions.
The final context, and the one that has the strongest direct influence on children and youth, is the immediate and extended family caregiving environment in which the child develops.
The nesting of these ecological contexts combines to differentially place whole communities of children at risk for abuse and neglect.
Only by integrating a range of developmental theories, in relation to these various contexts, can something as complex as violent patterns of behavior be understood, especially if the goal is identifying points of prevention and intervention. Reviews of developmentally based interventions point to several time periods and contexts across an individual’s life, from the prenatal period to late adolescence, for evidence-based interventions that decrease the likelihood that children placed at risk will develop violent patterns of behavior as adolescents. A few examples of those time periods and categories of intervention are listed below.
Prenatal months. There are numerous known targets for prevention long before children are placed at risk for abuse and neglect. This includes parents’ need for healing from their own abuse and neglect to ensure they have the psychological and emotional capacities to engage in supportive parenting as well as ensuring parents have the socioeconomic and community resources that are associated with reducing the likelihood of abuse and neglect.
Postnatal months. Prevention efforts can continue immediately after birth for families with known risk factors. These interventions can be delivered through proven home visiting programs that target parent-infant attachment and parent-infant stress regulation.
Early childhood. For children who have experienced abuse and neglect, parent development interventions can be delivered for parents and foster parents to ensure that children’s home environments improve and that any initial learning of violent behaviors is mitigated. Effective interventions can be delivered in as few as ten to twelve weeks.
School-going years. The school-going years are an opportune time for direct teaching of the social and emotional skills and the problem-solving and decision-making skills that have been shown to reduce the likelihood that children who have experienced abuse and neglect will be rejected by prosocial peers. This peer rejection increases the likelihood that abused and neglected children’s social interactions become concentrated with children exhibiting aggressive and deviant behaviors, which escalates and reinforces those behaviors.
The school-going years are also the best opportunity for identifying and accessing children placed at risk and delivering mental health supports to help them cope with the cognitive and emotional effects of abuse, neglect, and other traumatic stressors.
First contact with the juvenile justice system. If the goal of the juvenile justice system is desistance, the focus should be on anything but detention. This could include implementing evidence-based interventions such as community supervision and apprenticeship diversion programs, coupled with interventions targeting psychological and emotional health and adaptive coping skills.
American society has by decision and default largely deferred paying the costs of supporting children who have experienced abuse and neglect until those abused and neglected children enter the juvenile and eventually adult criminal justice system. National estimates of the direct cost of incarcerating youth are about $401 per day. There are also broader juvenile justice system costs and collateral individual and social costs that result from victimization experienced during confinement that are much higher than the direct cost of confinement. In contrast, evaluations routinely show positive financial returns to investing in preventative interventions. However, the current system of family, community, and school interventions repeatedly fails most children placed at risk during the years when prevention and intervention would be most effective.
Instead, American society pours money and resources into punishment when victims become perpetrators: “aggression, substance abuse, and other symptoms targeted as problematic behaviors by the legal system are often coping strategies to increase safety and security in individuals with histories of trauma.”
The intergenerational transmission of trauma is essential to understanding contemporary racial and ethnic group differences in both victimization and the perpetration of violence. Historical trauma includes three successive phases: First, a dominant group perpetrating mass traumas on a subgroup of the population, resulting in cultural, familial, societal, and economic devastation. Next, the initial generations that directly experienced these traumas develop negative biological, cultural, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. Finally, unhealed traumas are conveyed to successive generations through a host of societal, contextual, interpersonal, and biological processes.
Given the critical role of the family caregiving environment, one highly relevant example of the intergenerational transmission of historical trauma is the extent to which Black children are not raised by their biological parents, children for whom abuse and neglect do not necessarily cease once they are placed in another home. In 2016, approximately 23 percent of children in foster care were Black, though Black children made up only 14 percent of the total child population; in comparison, 44 percent of children in foster care were white, while white children make up 50 percent of the child population. This racial and ethnic disparity is directly due to the ways that slavery created and necessitated insecure parent-child attachment. It also owes to the ways that Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and other social policies have made it disproportionately difficult for Black families to create the conditions that are conducive to secure and supportive parenting.
The negative effects of historical trauma are maintained through state sponsored (that is, institutional) retraumatization through the foster care, juvenile justice, educational, and other state systems. As noted above, one factor associated with whether abused and neglected children will go on to develop violent patterns of behavior is the extent to which they experience continued victimization and other traumatic stressors throughout childhood and adolescence. Institutional retraumatization occurs in juvenile justice and educational settings when those institutions use punitive and coercive sanctions rather than supportive interventions in response to children exhibiting behavioral dysregulation that is the direct result of their inability to cope with traumatic life experiences. Holding the state accountable does not absolve communities and families from the responsibility of contributing to the healthy development of children, but state institutions must be resourced and organized in ways that enable them to meet children where they are.
According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, about four million children in the United States are exposed to violence each year, and about half of those children experience lasting trauma. National studies estimate that over 70 percent of children in need of mental health treatment do not receive services, and this is especially true of children in economically disadvantaged families. Because of the self-regulation demands, schools are one of the primary places where children’s mental health challenges become detectable, and schools have, by default, become mental health assessment and service delivery institutions. However, without a model for meeting this need, when poor mental health is displayed in the form of challenging classroom behaviors, children are often met with practices that retraumatize and decrease, rather than increase, the likelihood of school success. When schools fail, dysregulated children show up in the juvenile justice system, and as numerous studies estimate, mental illness is two to three times more prevalent among incarcerated juveniles.
I have focused on traumas that are passed from one generation to the next and from one victim to the next via interpersonal violence: one individual or group of individuals doing harm to another. This means that relational damage is created that can only be healed through relational repair. Once we understand that the behaviors of adolescents who are violent offenders were developed and are maintained through the accumulation of interpersonal traumas, it becomes clear that the criminal justice system, a system designed to inflict relational harm by removing the individual from their family and community, cannot be the primary source of intervention.
As American society is waking up to the need to hold police officers and the criminal justice system accountable for their roles in state-sponsored violence, we must similarly hold all our public institutions accountable for state-sponsored retraumatization of children. Because of their access to and time with children, schools are uniquely positioned to provide children placed at risk for developing violent patterns of behavior with preventative and rehabilitative interventions. From kindergarten to 12th grade, a student spends more than 15,000 hours in school. How those hours are used has a significant effect on breaking versus reinforcing the intergenerational transmission of trauma and violence.
Excerpted from an essay originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. ©2022 by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, pp. 67-83. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.
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