This research paper provides a complex picture of the role of social learning during childhood in explaining later intimate partner violence. While many of the earliest studies show associations between childhood exposure to violence (either as a witness or as a victim), most of these studies have methodological weaknesses, such as the use of clinic or shelter samples (which generally show a stronger relationship between early and later violence), small samples, lack of comparison groups, and use of retrospective data and analyses. The relationship, however, is also supported in the stronger studies employing national samples. However, more sophisticated analyses, using multivariate statistics, have commonly demonstrated that the relationship between parental violence in childhood and later intimate partner violence could be explained by other social, family, and contextual factors.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that while social learning is a viable explanation for intimate partner violence, its explanatory power is weak to moderate, and the mechanisms for intergenerational transmission of abusive parenting are complex and remain unspecified.
7. Prevention Implications
There are many reasons for preventing child abuse and child exposure to violence—one reason is some moderate potential to reduce intimate partner violence in later adulthood. Early intervention may restore normal developmental processes, such as empathy and self-control, that promote healthy nonviolent relationships. Since the family provides a context for early learning of violence, programs that intervene with the family should have farreaching effects. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of harsh, permissive, and inconsistent parenting. High levels of parental negative affect and hostility are disruptive to children’s ability to regulate their emotional responses and manage conflict appropriately. Patterson, Reid, and Dishion (1992) use social learning theory to describe an interactive pattern of behavior between parent and child, the ‘‘coercive process,’’ whereby children learn to escape or avoid parental criticism by escalating their negative behaviors. This, in turn, leads to increasingly aversive parent interactions and escalating dysregulation on the part of the child. These negative parent responses directly model and reinforce the child’s deviant behaviors. This suggests the need to teach parent skills that emphasize changing negative parenting practices, such as coercive discipline and punishment, and that teach parents how to handle conflict, maintain self-control, and problem-solve to effectively manage children. Clinical experience indicates that coercive discipline patterns among parents are difficult to change as children reach adolescence; thus families should be targeted before the children reach late childhood and before patterns of physical abuse become entrenched in the child and reproduced in later relationships.
There are several selected (secondary prevention) evidence-based parent training programs that target high-risk families. The Nurse-Family Partnership (Olds et al. 1998) is an effective method of reducing child abuse and neglect and later antisocial and criminal behavior on the part of children. It provides supports for first-time and other high-risk mothers during pregnancy and through the child’s second birthday. Parents are provided educational content, supports, and skills designed to improve pregnancy outcomes, improve the child’s health and development, and improve the mother’s own personal development. The Incredible Years Parent, Teacher, and Child Training Series (Webster- Stratton et al. 2001) is designed to promote emotional and social competence in young children, ages two to eight, at risk for or presenting with conduct problems. The program for parents imparts skills such as how to play with children, ways to help children learn, effective praise and use of incentives, and effective limit-setting and strategies for handling misbehavior. In the advanced program, parents are also taught interpersonal skills such as effective communication, anger management, and problem-solving between adults. The Child Program intervenes with children who exhibit particular behaviors that place them at risk for later adolescent and adult violence. Although the program has not been tested to determine its effects on child abuse, the skills that parents gain and the reduction in conduct disorders among children may ultimately impact child abuse.
There is also evidence that a well-developed capacity for empathy inhibits or prevents aggression, suggesting that programs that work with children to develop social and emotional competencies may have long-term benefits. Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) is a universal (primary prevention) school program for children in kindergarten through grade 5 that teaches empathy and behavioral regulation to prevent initiation of aggressive behavior (Greenberg, Kusche, and Mihalic 2002).
Indicated (tertiary prevention) programs target populations already exhibiting the problem, such as domestic violence perpetrators and victims. Although numerous treatment options for batterers (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual and group counseling, mandated arrest) have been evaluated, there is little empirical support that any of these treatment modalities stop the violence. Few studies have evaluated advocacy studies for victims, but at least two studies show promise for this approach (Goodman and Epstein 2005; Stover 2005). Until programs can be found that have demonstrated effects working with adult perpetrators and victims, early intervention models appear the most promising.
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