Boston College doctoral student Jooyoung Kong, GSSW ’16, recently published a study, “Caring for My Abuser: Childhood Maltreatment and Caregiver Depression” in The Gerontologist, a bimonthly journal of the Gerontological Society of America, and it has been making headway in the field of studying childhood maltreatment.
The study focuses on depressive symptoms among adults who provide care to formerly abusive or neglectful parents. The study also examined coping mechanisms these adult survivors used in working as a caretaker-Sara Moorman, an assistant professor in the department of sociology, co-authored the study.
Kong, who is a third-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Social Work, decided to study this topic because it has not been examined closely in the past.
“I came up with the idea that those who experienced abuse or neglect from their parents during childhood-it might be particularly difficult to care for their parents because they basically have to deal with their former abuser,” she said in an email. “However, I also assumed that these people cannot just walk away from the situation because it is their parents who need their support. I was very fascinated by this topic, which didn’t show much research in the aging literature.”
The number of caregivers who were maltreated in childhood is surprising, Kong said. About 20 percent of caregivers reported physical, sexual or emotional abuse, while about 10 percent of caregivers reported neglect.
“This was beyond what I expected, and it made me wonder even more why the caregivers choose to care for their parents despite abuse/neglect in childhood,” she said. “I speculated that these caregivers choose to provide care to their parents because they want to live a good life, which is different from their parents. They may take appropriate moral actions based on filial responsibility.”
The study concluded that persons who had a history of abuse who are now caregivers for aging parents had significantly more depressive symptoms than those who were not abused by their parents. This trend was also true for those who reported childhood neglect-those who were neglected had higher rates of depressive symptoms than those who didn’t. She also concluded that this group uses their emotions as a coping mechanism through avoidance, disengagement, or denial.
“For the abused/neglected caregivers, the use of emotion-focused coping was associated with more frequent depressive symptoms,” she said. “This may imply that difficulties in emotional regulation may negatively impact interaction with their parents; however, it is also important to note that emotional regulation deficiencies are one of the possible consequences of childhood maltreatment.”
Kong moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea five years ago to earn her Master of Social Work degree at Washington University in St. Louis. She became interested in social work because her father, who is a Presbyterian pastor at a church in South Korea, runs a temporary residence for runaway children. Kong’s parents take care of the needs of these children, who have nowhere to go.
“I grew up watching my parents take special care of these vulnerable children and provide for their needs,” she said. “After realizing I inherited the same heart and vision of my parents, I decided to enter the field of social work.”
Kong came to America to earn her doctorate and to become a scholar in social work, especially in the field of gerontology. She began the doctoral program at BC immediately after finishing the program at Washington University. She is especially interested in issues relating to older people, such as parent-child relationships and problems with caregiving.
Kong conducted her study using the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which was a random sample of 10,317 high school graduates in Wisconsin. The study surveyed the respondents and their family members periodically between 1957 and 2011 and garnered a massive amount of information about their family background and social relationships, among other things. Kong used a sample of 1,001 caregivers who provided care to their parents from the 2004 to 2005 wave of surveys.
The project took her about one year to complete. Kong spent one semester drafting the study and one semester polishing it to fit with the standards of the journal.
She first began to think of the idea for the study during her second year of the doctoral program, because she needed to write a publishable paper and a dissertation to fulfill the course requirements. She originally wanted to focus on the general topic of “coping in later life.” While in the brainstorming process of the study, she began to work on a research project about the long-term effects of sexual abuse in male survivors. This project sparked her interest, and she then came up with the idea of abuse survivors caring for their parents and the ensuing effects.
“Being exposed to the issue of trauma, which was new to me, actually broadened my perspective and allowed me to link issues in the two different fields: trauma and aging,” she said.
While conducting the study, Kong was fascinated to come across different perspective on human behavior and motivation. She speculated that the abuse survivors might still care for their abusers due to a feeling of responsibility to their family. Moorman, however, argued that they are probably forced to do it or no one else will, Kong said.
“I am sure there will be hundreds and thousands of different stories and interpretations related to the issue, and I wish to come up with a theory that can best explain this particular phenomenon,” she said.
Kong hopes to continue research on parent-child relationships throughout their lifespans. She also wants to create a social work program for these previously abused caregivers in order to lessen their burden and stress and to help with their caregiving duties.
“I believe that social work research has its meaning when it is tightly linked with social work practice and our clients,” she said. “I would like to continue my endeavor to bridge between research and practice.”