Over the years there has been a substantial amount of research done trying to understand the origins and causes of child abuse. Precise links have been established between a child’s victimization and behavioral problems later on in life such as problems in school, delinquency, violence, and adult criminality. At present there are six theories that have been developed to understand the root causes of abuse which are listed below.1

Social Learning Theory

According to this theory, behavior is learned through two methods:

Some researchers assume that abused children learn to be abusive using these two methods and continue their abusive behavior into adulthood. This pattern of learned aggression is commonly referred to as the “cycle of violence,” or the intergenerational transmission of violence. The broad-based application of the cycle of violence theory is questioned, pointing to findings that only 20-30% of child abuse and neglect victims become involved in abusive and criminal behavior. Interventions based on social learning theory commonly have the purpose of stopping current and preventing future child abuse and neglect by teaching both the parent and child appropriate relationship skills within the family.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theorists believe humans develop behaviors as a result of how their caregivers nurture them. According to attachment theory, the type of bond that develops between child and caregiver affects the child’s later relationships. There are four bonding types:

Secure attachment patterns are thought to develop from a consistent and nurturing caregiver, whereas the insecure attachments are the result of inconsistent, emotionally neglectful and/or abusive caregiving. Several researchers have cited that as many as 80% of abused infants and children exhibit insecure attachment patterns.


Ecological Theory

Ecological theory holds that abuse and neglect result from multiple factors. These are divided into four systems: individual, family, community, and culture. For individuals and families involved in child abuse and neglect, the degree of influence by each of these four systems may differ dramatically. A child who has been sexually abused may be committed to school, involved with peers but dissociated from the family. In another family, a sexually abused child may be disconnected from the community and isolated from peers. If child maltreatment is the result of multiple factors from various systems, then in order to be effective, programs need to address each factor and system.

Family Systems Theory

This theory is similar to ecological theory in that both focus on the entire family unit when assessing the needs and service approach for responding to child abuse and neglect. Family systems theory, however, focuses primarily on the family and is a process of identifying problems as the consequences of dysfunctional relationships among family members. For example, in cases of incest where the father is the perpetrator, the possibility that the mother’s reluctant intervention may appear to be tacit approval would be explored as a contributing factor in the repeated abuse. Critics are concerned with this theory’s failure to recognize the influence of power and society on human behavior. Some critics worry that the discussion of the victim’s and bystander’s roles in the abuse may be overemphasized and relieve the perpetrator of responsibility.

Self-Efficacy Theory

This theory focuses on how personal characteristics of the child, and especially the parent, influences family functioning. Self-efficacy theory addresses how a parent’s expectations of effectiveness impact their motivation and behavior. An individual’s expectations dictate if they will start and continue actions to achieve a goal. This theory may help bridge a gap between knowledge and behavior. A gap between knowledge and behavior is apparent when parents know they should not hit their children, but are unable to seek out methods to achieve this goal. Self-efficacy theory states that this knowledge/behavior gap is due to the parents’ belief that they cannot behave in a manner that would stop them from abusing their children. Self-efficacy theory is limited because it does not incorporate a developmental perspective.

Resilience Theory

Historically, child abuse and neglect research and interventions were grounded in the belief that inevitably the victim is damaged by the trauma. However, factors such as severity of abuse, frequency of abuse, age of the victim, and relationship to the perpetrator can predict later adjustment. Additionally, factors such as social support, parental warmth, and the victim’s healthy relationship with a supportive adult can influence the child’s healthy development and avoidance of delinquent behavior. Resiliency does not explain why abuse and neglect occur, rather, it explains why children may not inevitably be damaged by child abuse and neglect. It may also explain how the “cycle of violence” can be interrupted.

As you read these different theories, think about your own situation when growing up. Does this information help you put some of the puzzle pieces together? One may jump out at you or parts of each of them may apply to your situation. Regardless of their applicability, the more you know about the research findings involving child abuse, the more you can make sense of what happened to you.

1“Child Abuse Intervention,” The National Institute of Justice, OJP, USDOJ, October 3, 1997