Using two decades of longitudinal data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, multilevel structural equation modeling was employed to examine the associations between reports of childhood maltreatment, aspects of current relationships with parents (i.e., perceived closeness, contact frequency, and exchange of social support), and psychological well-being/distress of adult children. In order to best assess the long-term effects of childhood maltreatment by a parent, our analyses focused on two groups – one group consisted of respondents whose mothers were alive across the three waves and thus reported relationship quality with mothers at each wave (i.e., the Relationship with Mothers group) and the other group consisted of respondents who fathers were alive across the three waves and reported relationship quality with fathers at each wave (i.e., the Relationship with Fathers group).
Key results indicated that in the Relationship with Mothers group, maternal verbal and physical abuse were associated with lower levels of perceived closeness with mothers. Reports of having been neglected were associated with lower perceived closeness, less frequent contact with mothers, and less exchange of support with mothers. In turn, perceived closeness with mothers was positively associated with the level of psychological well-being. We found significant mediational associations such that reports of having been verbally abused, physically abused, or neglected were associated with lower levels of psychological well-being partly through lower levels of perceived closeness with mothers. In the Relationship with Fathers group, reports of having been verbally abused by the father or neglected were associated with lower levels of perceived closeness with fathers. In turn, perceived closeness with fathers was positively associated with the level of psychological well-being of adult children, although we did not find evidence of mediation.
Our findings suggest a significant linkage between childhood and later-life intergenerational relationships. Adults who were maltreated as children may continue to experience challenges in their relationship with the perpetrating mother. Further research is needed to examine how these past and current relational dynamics affect caregiving experiences and outcomes. In addition, when intervening with adults with a history of childhood maltreatment, practitioners should evaluate contemporary relationship quality with the abusive mother and help address any unresolved emotional issues with the parent.