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UND psychologists helping to break cycle of sexual abuse

Unique study examines risk factors for daughters of mothers who suffered from rape or other sexual abuse

RaeAnn Anderson (left), a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology, and Angie Minnich, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, are studying why the daughters of mothers who experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime are twice as likely to become victims themselves. They hope their research could lead to new treatment or therapy techniques that could help break the cycle of violence. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today

When you’re about to be a first-time mom, the experts will tell you everything. A swaddled newborn is a happy newborn. Put baby to sleep on her back. Breastmilk is best. If junior fusses, check first if he’s hungry or wet.

They seem to have all the answers. But the one thing they’re unlikely to tell you is how you can keep your own daughter safe from experiencing the same sexual trauma you suffered in your lifetime.

That’s just one of many questions two UND psychology researchers are hoping to answer: Why are the daughters of mothers who experienced rape or other sexual abuse twice as likely to become victims themselves? And what can mothers and clinicians do to stop the cycle from repeating?

RaeAnn Anderson, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology, and Angie Minnich, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, say that although the statistics are startling, very little research exists to explain the complicated mother-daughter dynamic.

“It’s a complex problem. And it’s a complex project,” Anderson said. “We’re trying to approach it head-on and delicately, in a way that’s not blaming. We don’t want mothers to feel even more guilty about this horrible thing that happened to them.

“By and large, these mothers really want to protect their daughters, yet there might be things regarding their mental health or their parenting abilities, their family structures or their community resources, that get in the way of them being able to protect their daughters from abuse.”

This specific type of cyclical abuse is more formally known as the “intergenerational continuity of sexual violence victimization,” Minnich explained, and it’s the topic of her doctoral dissertation.

Ahmad Endowment

The research — just one of more than a dozen studies underway in Anderson’s Sexual Violence Prevention Research Laboratory — was made possible by the Joyce and Aqueil Ahmad Endowment. Anderson recently was awarded the annual endowment, which comes with a $1,500 gift to support efforts to promote peace and nonviolence. Aqueil Ahmad, a former UND sociology professor, was instrumental in establishing the Peace Studies program at UND.

“This award means UND really values the kind of research we’re trying to do,” Anderson said. “This kind of research is very difficult to carry out. The topic of violence research can make people emotionally uncomfortable, and from a practical standpoint, it’s really hard to recruit 215 mother-daughter pairs.

“So whenever we get research funding for these kinds of things, it’s like a vote of confidence in our ideas.”

Joelle Ruthig, chair of the Department of Psychology, says this year marks the third in a row that a member of her department has received the award. In 2019, Professor Alan King was recognized for his research focusing on child maltreatment and aggressive development. And in 2020, Associate Professor Andre Kehn was recognized for his work on understanding hate motivation.

“It’s exciting to see all the important work being recognized,” Ruthig said. “I think the application of psychology research sometimes can be more difficult for people to discern, but the impact this research can have within the community is very clear.”

As for Anderson, Ruthig added: “She is enthusiastic, and she brings great energy to the department. In addition to being a productive researcher, she also puts great effort into mentoring her students — taking paying it forward to heart.”

The mother-daughter study

Anderson and Minnich say they’re in the early stages of their mother-daughter research and have gathered about 14 percent of their target sample size. It all begins with an anonymous online survey that can take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. Daughters, who must be between 18 and 35 years of age to be eligible, will find their version of the survey here. Mothers will take a separate survey.

“All your answers are anonymous, and no one has to talk to us,” Anderson said. “Of course, we’re happy to talk to them if they want to talk, but they can stay completely anonymous.”

Though complete mother-daughter pairs are necessary for the research, she pointed out that they will not see each other’s answers.

In the end, Minnich says she hopes to identify the different risk factors that can impact the probability of falling victim to sexual abuse.

“We’re looking at both the familial level and individual factors — things like demographic characteristics, race and socioeconomic status. How is the relationship between mom and daughter? Do they talk about their experiences of sexual violence and know the history?” she said. “And then more at the societal or community level, too. Do people around them think rape is OK? Are they coming from the same sex education background?”

Both researchers say it’s a lot to take in, but they believe the data will lead to a better understanding of the cycle of violence so therapists and others can better target key aspects of people’s lives in order to break the cycle.

“This probably will be a more exploratory study at first,” Minnich said.

“But we are going to have buckets of data and important implications,” Anderson added.

For example, she said, current treatment or therapy techniques might be altered to address this specific need.

“We know how to do PTSD therapy, and we know how to do parenting therapy, but how do we do those simultaneously? And for parenting interventions, what additional content do we need to make it not just accessible but most useful?” Anderson said.

“We know from previous research that people with untreated trauma difficulties don’t do as well with normal therapy. They need that little extra help to be able to get the most out of it.”

She suggested one possible outcome could be the development of a specialized two-session protocol for families that would allow them to feel more comfortable about opening up and talking about that history of abuse.

Added Minnich: “When you’ve been traumatized by some form of sexual assault, it’s super hard to talk about. Even if you’re teaching a parenting class, most people would rather just skip that section about talking to kids about rape — but adding the trauma-informed lens is so helpful when it comes to understanding this and making a difference.”

Want to help or learn more?

If you want to learn more specifics about the study, you may email Anderson at raeann.anderson@und.edu or Minnich at angela.h.minnich@und.edu.