Beating, yelling and neglect can all be passed from one generation to the next — but parents are often keen to break the cycle of abuse if they can get the right help, researchers say.
They found that the more adverse childhood experiences a person had, the more likely their children were to be troubled, too.
The findings suggest that poor parenting is handed on from one generation to the next, said Anne-Marie Conn, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Spanking and beating are two examples, Conn said.
"Parents with multiple adverse events were more likely to value corporal punishment," she told NBC News. A study published last week found that even gentle spanking, with an open hand, can backfire and cause kids to misbehave — yet American parents overwhelmingly believe it's good for kids.
"We also found that parents with more adverse events, their children were a little more likely to have emotional problems," Conn said.
And yet, Conn told a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Baltimore on Tuesday, parents often are keen for guidance — and they'll trust their pediatricians to provide it. She believes pediatricians are in a unique position to ask parents about their parenting styles, and advise them about ways to change bad habits their own parents may have taught them.
Her team interviewed 62 parents of young children attending a clinic to find out how their own childhoods may have determined how they raised their kids.
They found clear links. The more adverse experiences a person had as a child, the more likely his or her own children were troubled by age 5.
On average, the parents at the clinic had suffered three to four adverse experiences when they were children. These included verbal and physical abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. Family dysfunctions included criminal behavior, substance abuse, separation of parents, parental or caregiver mental health problems, and violence.
"We found that 91 percent of parents had at least one adverse childhood experience, while 45 percent had four or more," Conn said in remarks prepared for her presentation. "And among their young children, 72 percent had already experienced at least one adverse childhood experience."
When parents had four or more of these bad experiences, their children were nearly six times more likely to already be showing signs of social or emotional problems, Conn and colleagues found.
The parents are not clueless, Conn stressed. "When you interview parents, they are aware their past experiences affect their parenting," she said.
What they are not sure about is what to do, and what not to do.
"It's hard to break patterns of behavior. You were brought up in an adverse environment and that is what you know," Conn said.
And people can be raised with strong beliefs about parenting. Conn says a screening test can help tease out some of the beliefs that underlie inappropriate use of physical punishment, emotional neglect and what's called parental role reversal — asking too much of kids.
Some of the beliefs they teased out that can point to inappropriate parenting:
Parents spoil babies by picking them up when they cry.
The problem with kids today is that parents give them too much freedom.
Children nowadays have it too easy.
Good children always obey their parents.
Crying is a sign of weakness in boys.
Children should be seen and not heard.
Children cry just to get attention.
Children who bite others need to be bitten to teach them what it feels like.
If you love your children, you will spank them when they misbehave.
Children need to be potty trained as soon as they are two years old.
Children should offer comfort when their parents are sad.
In the father's absence, the son needs to become the man of the house.
Children should know when their parents are tired.
Conn thinks pediatricians can ask parents about some of these attitudes when they bring their children in for the many appointments that younger children have for vaccines and checkups. Parents are often open to it, she said.
"For example, Kara, a mother with seven adverse childhood experiences told us: 'Doctors, they don't always ask the questions they should ask. Like, a lot of people don't like to get into personal issues but I think their doctor should ask them every time they come in ... how the mom or the father is feeling ... offer more resources to certain parents," Conn said.
Another mother, named only as Maria, said: "I think if a doctor says, 'Do you feel what you're doing is right for your child? Even though this is how you were raised, do you feel this is the right decision you are making?' So if not, then get them help so they can try and raise their kids better. Give them suggestions, because it's just not working."
Conn says pediatricians don't necessarily have to lay down the law or invoke parenting "rules."
"If spanking is a value that they have, it's more harmful to say it's wrong," she said. It might be easier to persuade parents to tweak their behavior. "Spanking is more harmful when it's done out of emotion. Planned spanking is better than emotional spanking," she said.
"If a child feels loved and supported, regardless of what discipline is used, that can be a game-changer."