When Children of Abuse Become Parents

Three parents struggle not to treat their children the way they were treated.

ByABC News
September 16, 2009, 1:50 PM

Sept. 16, 2009 — -- Growing up, Nick Schiavone feared his father. Now a single father of two himself, he tries hard to be affectionate and demonstrative with his own children, he said. But when Nicholas, his 5-year-old son, acts up, Schiavone's temper can get the best of him.

"I will slap the crap out of you!" Schiavone yelled, with cameras rolling, after the boy threw a rubber toy at his face.

It's hard enough for any parent to know what to do when a child acts out. For caregivers who themselves were disciplined with harsh physical punishment as a child, it's even harder. Studies show that one in three people who were abused as children will grow up to become an abuser.

For more than a month last year, ABC News followed three parents in Florida who are trying to overcome the odds. Cameras rolled as the parents struggled to deal with their kids monster tantrums and meltdowns that could test anyone's patience. The families volunteered for a mentoring program for at-risk parents called Parent Aide, run by the Toledo, Ohio-based National Exchange Club Foundation.

Schiavone said that nowadays he has a very good relationship with his dad -- but when he was young, things were different.

"When I was younger he was kind of abusive," Schiavone told ABC News' Chris Cuomo. "Spanking, punching, throwing me across the room. I don't want to do that with my children, because I know the effect that it put on me as a human being. I don't want that to happen to my children."

Can these parents stop the cycle and not perpetuate the violence they themselves experienced as children? They'll get help, but will they be able to help themselves?

Experts are shedding light on parenting techniques that can help break the cycle and can provide a blueprint for virtually anyone looking to become a better parent. Science has shown that stress hormone levels in children, aggression and even obesity can be altered when parents learn how to break the cycle of damaging behavior.

"Most parents who were abused as children say, 'I'll never treat my children the way I was treated,'" said Karen Askew, director of the National Exchange Club Foundation. "But people tend to parent the way they were parented themselves."