After abuse, women face doubts they’ll be good moms

"When they become adults, we've found that some of these moms become highly self-critical about their ability to parent effectively ... this type of self-doubt is related to poor parenting—yelling, hitting, and other kinds of negative parenting behaviors," says Louisa Michl. (Credit: Dane/Flickr)

Mothers who were abused as children may be less confident in their parenting skills—and may in turn abuse their own children.

Intervention programs for moms at-risk should do more than teach parenting skills. Experts say it’s important to bolster mothers’ self-confidence, as well.

“We know that maltreated children can have really low self-esteem,” says Louisa Michl, a doctoral student in the psychology department at the University of Rochester.

“And when they become adults, we’ve found that some of these moms become highly self-critical about their ability to parent effectively. “Research has shown that this type of self-doubt is related to poor parenting—yelling, hitting, and other kinds of negative parenting behaviors.”

Mothers in the study who experienced more types of abuse as children—sexual abuse, physical, or emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect—showed higher levels of self-criticism, and greater doubt in their ability to be effective parents.

The study, published in Child Maltreatment, included both mothers who were clinically depressed and those who weren’t. “Our research shows that self-criticism leads to lower-confidence in parenting abilities in previously maltreated mothers and this was true in non-depressed moms as well as depressed mothers,” Michl says.

Effective parenting

Prior research has found that a mother’s confidence is closely linked to her motivation to use positive child-rearing strategies. “When a mom has confidence in her ability to use positive strategies when under stress—like when her child throws a tantrum in a grocery store—then she is more likely to parent effectively,” Michl says.

All of the mothers in the study were from low-income households. “For families living in poverty, daily stresses can quickly add up, and parenting—which can be challenging for anyone—can become overwhelming.”

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“So many parenting interventions are didactic. They’re teaching parenting skills: ‘if your baby cries, do this’; ‘this is how you feed your baby’; ‘this is how you burp your baby.’ That’s all well and good—moms can learn those skills.

“But what happens when they are in a stressful situation? What do they do? If they don’t have the attitude—the belief that they can do this, that they can be a good mom and enact all those things they learned—then they may fall back on how they themselves were treated as children.”

There is a positive side. Beliefs of maternal efficacy are modifiable, Michl says.

“If a mom who was maltreated as a child can sustain some strong beliefs in her competency as a mom, then it may help break the cycle of abuse and buffer her children against that kind of experience she had. That is where this research has led us so far.

“My hope is that community services that offer intervention support will focus on moms’ mental health—how her critical self-beliefs are getting in the way of believing she can be a good parent. Making sure moms have good parenting skills is really important. But we can support these moms in a more holistic way—provide her the facts, but also help her to believe in herself.”

The National Institute of Mental Health supported the work.

Source: University of Rochester