Social Learning Theory And Childhood Maltreatment.

Albert Bandura developed a theory known as SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY during the 1960s which stated that we learn our behaviours through interacting with and observing, those around us. And, of course, when we are children, our parents are particularly influential upon which particular ways of behaving we develop.

If parents maltreat their children over an extended period, therefore, the theory predicts that such children may absorb these parents’ negative behaviours into their own behavioural patterns and, later in life, when they themselves become parents, replicate/’play out’ such behavioural patterns within their own families (this is sometimes known as intergenerational transmission [of the effects of trauma]).

According to research conducted by Rener and Slack (2006), adults who had been physically abused as children were 2.6 times more likely to have experienced IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) than those who hadn’t; Intimate Personal Violence can be defined as :

‘Harm which is both serious and preventable of a physical, sexual or emotional nature inflicted upon a person by a current or former partner.’

It is possible that this nearly threefold increased risk is due to ‘learning’ (on a conscious or unconscious level) to form a self-concept as ‘a person who is victimized’ or, even, a ‘person who deserves to be victimized.’ This self-concept may then become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

(On a personal level, I myself have had periods in my life in which people with whom I have had a relationship, Platonic or otherwise, have treated me very badly over extended periods of time. I see now, that had I had anything vaguely approaching the merest vestige of self-esteem/respect at the time, I wouldn’t have allowed such relationships to continue. I can’t pinpoint precisely what my attitude was at the time, but I think it was something along the lines of: ‘Oh well, this is just how things are for me’ – a kind of feeble, helpless resignation, I suppose). 

Other research, conducted by McCloskey and Bailey (2000), found that mothers who were sexually abused as children were 360% more likely to have daughters who were also sexually abused than were mothers who were not sexually abused as children. It is a possibility that this may be due to the mothers who were sexually abused as children having,  by an insidious learning process (again, either consciously or unconsciously), come to the distorted worldview that all men are sexually exploitative and therefore more accepting of such men in their social circle which may, in turn, put such mothers’ daughters at increased risk.

If you are experiencing domestic violence you can gain advice and information by visiting this (external) link:

Domestic abuse: how to get help – GOV.UK



McCloskey LA, Bailey JA. The intergenerational transmission of risk for child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2000;15:1019–1035. [Google Scholar]

Renner LM, Slack KS. Intimate partner violence and child maltreatment: Understanding intra-and intergenerational connections. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2006;30(6):599–617. [Abstract] [Google Scholar]