The Role of Intergenerational Trauma in the Perpetuation of Childhood Maltreatment

A new study examines the role parent borderline pathology plays in the perpetuation of childhood maltreatment.

Jessica Janze

A new study, published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology, investigates how childhood maltreatment is transmitted across generations and the role that traits associated with “borderline pathology” play in this transmission. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and Northeastern University collected data from over 900 participants about childhood maltreatment. Results of the intergenerational study suggest borderline personality pathology may be a risk factor for non-specific childhood maltreatment.

“Because borderline personality pathology is associated with both exposure to childhood maltreatment and risk factors for its perpetuation, we expected that it would mediate childhood maltreatment continuity across generations,” write researchers, led by Sarah Paul at Washington University in St. Louis.

(Photo Credit: Joshua Green)

Maltreatment during childhood is common and widespread, leading to an increased risk of amplified stress, self-injury, mental health concerns, and even structural changes to the brain. It is notable that maltreatment of children tends to run in families, which is often referred to as the intergenerational transmission of childhood maltreatment (ITCM). That is to say, a child is more likely to be maltreated if their parents were maltreated in childhood.

As Paul and colleagues point out, little is known about the factors that contribute to the continuation of ITCM. Borderline personality pathology (BPP), as examined in the current study, is, “Characterized by pervasive emotion dysregulation, impulsivity, distress intolerance, inconsistent appraisals of others, feelings of isolation, and unstable interpersonal relationships, is a promising potential contributor to ITCM.” Further, a study outlined in the article suggests, “90% of patients with borderline personality disorder were exposed to childhood maltreatment and that they were more likely to be exposed than patients with other personality disorder diagnoses.”

“Both retrospective and prospective data reveal that maltreatment during childhood is strongly associated with BPP and that this relationship remains even after accounting for other forms of psychopathology (e.g., depression) related to both early life stress and BPP.”

The purpose of the current study was to explore the relationship between BPP and ITCM. Researchers recruited families from the St. Louis Personality and Aging Network (SPAN) study, which included 364 parents and their biological adult children. Through self-report measures, researchers examined rates of childhood maltreatment and the presence of BPP. In addition, they conducted clinical interviews with all participants, obtained information about personality, and collected other relevant covariates.

Results of the large inter-generational study further support childhood maltreatment as being common across generations. Further, the study suggests parental rates of BPP may be a risk factor for increased ITCM. “Parent borderline personality pathology was positively associated with their own prior exposure to maltreatment during childhood as well as their children’s exposure.”

“Consistent with theoretical models hypothesizing that childhood maltreatment plays a causal role in the development of BPP and associated evidence relating stressful family environments and predispositions for emotion dysregulation to the development of BPP, our findings show that maltreatment is associated with BPP development. In turn, the expression of BPP is associated with a heightened likelihood that one’s children are exposed to abuse or neglect,” write Paul and colleagues.

While the study does not suggest all individuals with BPP will perpetuate childhood maltreatment, it does highlight an important systemic characteristic of the pathology. The study suggests a framework for understanding ITCM that may assist in targeting interventions. The author concludes:

“Providing treatment for borderline personality pathology in the context of parenting and development may help interrupt the continuity of childhood maltreatment and related health problems across generations.”



Paul, Sarah & Boudreaux, Michael & Bondy, Erin & Tackett, Jennifer & Oltmanns, Thomas & Bogdan, Ryan. (2019). The intergenerational transmission of childhood maltreatment: Non-specificity of maltreatment type and associations with borderline personality pathology. Development and Psychopathology. (Link)

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Jessica Janze
MIA Research News Team: Jessica Janze is a doctoral student in the Counseling and School Psychology program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and has worked primarily with children impacted by psychological trauma. Jessica’s research interests include the impact of mindfulness in early education, emotional regulation, and the role contemplative practices play in mental health.


  1. The primary reason that child abuse is associated with Borderline Personality disorder, as are all the “affective and psychotic disorders,” is because our “mental health” workers cannot bill insurance companies for helping child abuse survivors, unless they misdiagnose them with one of the insurance billable DSM disorders.

    And the reality is that covering up child abuse has historically always been, and still is today, the primary actual societal function of our so called “mental health” workers.

    I have no doubt child abuse does occur within families, however it also occurs outside the home. And I have no doubt that, since our society has a group of multibillion dollar, primarily child abuse covering up, “mental health” industries. Whose child abuse covering up crimes have also functioned to aid, abet, and empower the pedophiles and child sex traffickers for over a century now. So our society now has serious pedophile and child sex trafficking problems, even according to world leaders, and the ethical within the “mental health” industry.

    Perhaps, the “mental health” workers should get out of the child abuse covering up business, since it’s illegal anyway. And rather than making assumptions that your made up, “invalid,” and “unreliable” DSM disorders cause child abuse. Perhaps our society should get rid of the child rape covering up “mental health” industries, and go back to arresting and convicting the child abusers, pedophiles, and child sex traffickers?

    Although since misdiagnosing child abuse survivors is approximately 80%, or so, of our “mental health” industry’s business, getting out of that illegal business, will likely be a hard thing for our child rape covering up “mental health” workers to do.

  2. ….so-called “mental illnesses” are exactly as “real” as presents from Santa Claus, but NOT MORE REAL….psychiatry is a pseudoscience, a drug racket, and a means of social control. It’s 21st Century Phrenology, with potent neuro-toxins. Psychiatry has done, and continues to do, far more harm than good….

  3. Reading this article made me feel so hopeless. At least the comments so far have reminded me that there are people who know the truth.
    By the time I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at 38 (after I failed a series of ECT treatments according to the psychiatrist), my son was in his late teens. I had first encountered the mental health system at age 16, when the board of education of my public school system paid for me to see a psychiatrist once a week because I had dropped out of school due to hopelessness. This psychiatrist dropped me the day I graduated because she stopped getting paid by the board of Ed. She knew my parents were not going to pay for treatment. I made my first suicide attempt a year later using the full bottle of Elavil that she left in my possession. My stomach was pumped I was treated terribly and I was sent home back to the same abusive environment that cause me to overdose. Several months later I was pregnant with my son. Had I known that I had this so-called borderline pathology, tragedy could have been avoided. But psychiatry as always fell down on the job. The hypotheses presented in this argument based on new science? These things are blatantly obvious and have been for decades. This article really makes my blood boil.

  4. I agree with the other commenters that mental illness is a social construct. Childhood trauma is real and its effects are real and yes it is passed down from one generation to another. Trauma is something that the mental health profession has failed miserably at treating. I can’t even say failed, because they haven’t tried to treat it. They ignore it. I have a borderline diagnosis and I have been denied trauma therapy for 35 years. The psychiatric profession has drugs and behavioral therapy for people with childhood trauma. They do not address the trauma. They deny or ignore the trauma (DBT: the past is irrelevant. Just learned skills) and blame the person who has been traumatized and they re-traumatize them and call it treatment. Both the drugs and the therapy made things so much worse for me, for 35 years.

  5. In other words, people who are abused as kid are more likely to abuse their kids than those who aren’t. The old cycle of abuse idea. Hardly groundbreaking research here. The disturbing part is that everyone in the field doesn’t already know that childhood abuse is behind much of what is called “mental illness.” Treat kids better and “mental illness” will be reduced. But oh, that’s “blaming the parents,” isn’t it? Safer to blame the kids’ brains.