What turns some victims into abusers, and others not?

A few weeks ago, I polled my friends with the following question: “What triggers the difference in behavior between the person who has been maltreated and, when it is their turn to be in power, 1) treats others as badly or worse than they were treated Or 2) treats others better than they were treated?”

I was thinking of situations such as

  • parent-child dynamics: repetition of abuse, perpetuation of physical mutilations (e.g. foot-binding, Female Genital Mutilation, etc)
  • group dynamics where one group has great power over the other (e.g. army or college hazing, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, etc).


The author of “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog”, psychiatrist and traumatized children expert Dr Bruce Perry, has an answer. According to his experience, it depends on the following four factors:

  1. how well regulated is the child’s stress response system around birth: ‘easier’ babies are less likely to suffer their parents’ frustration and ensuing abuse or neglect
  2. the timing of the trauma: the earlier it starts, the more difficult to treat and the greater the damage
  3. how quickly infants learn: being able to learn with fewer repetitions means that brighter kids, even if they are deprived, will be better equipped to quickly connect people with love and pleasure even when they don’t receive the bare minimum of stimulation required to cement those links. They will also be more creative in making decisions, and have the imagination to project themselves in another setting.
  4. the social environment in which the child is raised: if for example a neglectful parent is compensated by other attuned caregivers, children can have positive childhoods.

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