Each year, millions experience violence in their intimate relationships; most cases are of infrequent and noninjurious incidents, but an alarming number also experience physically and psychologically traumatic violence at the hands of a partner (Straus and Gelles 1990; Tjaden and Thoennes 1998). Clinicians, advocates, and social scientists have long cautioned the public health significance of such violence, not only for its effects on the adults in the relationship, but also because of the disproportionate number of these couples who have young children in the home. In fact, partner violence is most prevalent in young men and women of childbearing age (U.S. Department of Justice 1995). Correspondingly, each year, millions of children in the United States and elsewhere are exposed to physical violence between their parents. In the United States alone, over fourteen million children are exposed to some act of interparent physical violence, over six million children are exposed to severe violence (McDonald et al. 2004), and one million are brought to domestic violence shelters with their mothers (Jouriles 2000). Community studies of children suggest that about 25 percent recall seeing or hearing at least one physical fight between their parents, and 14 percent recall two or more such fights (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003).
Children are also exposed to other forms of familial abuse, many of which tend to cluster together in the same families. Some 10 percent of children are reported to authorities for cases of abuse or neglect at the hands of a caretaker. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS] 2004) records nearly 2.6 million referrals each year to child protection authorities for suspected child maltreatment by caretakers. These numbers are not inclusive of millions of children whose victimization goes unreported or is never disclosed (Finkelhor, Cross, and Cantor 2005).
The notion of intergenerational transmission, whereby partner violence is transmitted from the parent generation to the subsequent generation of offspring, has been one of the most widely cited theoretical explanations for the etiology of partner violence. Whereas the idea initially grew from narratives of men and women reflecting on their experiences in abusive relationships, a wealth of empirical research on this issue has emerged since the 1990s (Stith et al. 2000). In fact, a good deal of theoretical and empirical research now supports this ‘‘cycle of violence’’ theory (Moffitt and Caspi 2003; Widom 1989). The definition of the intergenerational transmission of partner violence has evolved with emerging research to take into account the myriad ways in which other forms of violence, such as child abuse and punitive parenting, can interact with childhood exposure to partner violence to increase the odds of the continuity of partner violence within families.
This research paper has the following goals: (1) to familiarize the reader with definitions of intergenerational transfer of partner violence, (2) to review theoretical perspectives and evidence about the intergenerational transfer of partner violence and views about how it occurs, and (3) to highlight implications for the design and implementation of interventions intended to prevent and reduce partner violence. This research paper aims to demonstrate ultimately that not only does exposure to partner violence increase the odds of the next generation’s involvement in abusive relationships, but violence between parents is one of the most potent social environmental mechanisms for the transmission of antisocial behavior in general.
Definition of Intergenerational Transmission of Violence
Historically, research on the effects of partner violence on child development has been hampered by problems of definition. Some have conceptualized the intergenerational transfer of domestic violence as going from parents to offspring. Others have examined the effects of other forms of familial abuse, such as child physical punishment, child abuse, and child neglect, on partner violence perpetration and victimization (Straus 1980, 1991; Wolfe et al. 1998). Still others have focused on broad definitions of antisocial behaviors (Simons et al. 1995). These variations are examined in greater detail below.
Exposure to domestic violence is a heterogeneous experience. Some children witness actual events of violence between their parents, others overhear violence, and, perhaps of gravest concern, still others are physically injured during episodes of violence between their parents (Holden, Geffner, and Jouriles 1998). Although substantial progress has been made since the 1990s in this domain, the field is still constrained by issues related to definitions of violence exposure, substantiation of reports of children’s exposure to violence, developmental sensitivity of the measures used to assess the experience of exposure, and numerous other methodological difficulties (Mohr et al. 2000).
There is also wide variability in how scholars define the type, frequency, and severity of violence between caretakers, as well as the level of exposure that the child has experienced. Further definitional issues concern:
- Whether it is the perpetration of violence that is transmitted across generations versus the experience of victimization by a partner (Avakame 1998).
- Variations in the time-frame for measuring partner abuse (current versus lifetime reports of partner violence) (Stith et al. 2000).
- Sample selection, such as representative community samples and samples of women drawn from battered women’s shelters, arrests for partner violence, or child protective services databases (Ehrensaft, Moffitt, and Caspi 2004).
- Retrospective versus prospective reports of partner-violence exposure in childhood (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003; Fergusson and Horwood 1998; Jouriles, McDonald, Norwood et al. 2001).
These definitions have resulted in variable reports of prevalence and correlate children’s partner-violence exposure (Fantuzzo and Mohr 1999). Correspondingly, the magnitude of the association of partner violence from one generation to the next varies considerably across these studies. The field is in need of further research in this area.
Evidence for the Intergenerational Transmission of Partner Violence
Several reviews suggest that there is sufficient evidence to support a cycle of violence theory, in which the violent behavior between parents increases the odds of partner violence in subsequent generations (Moffitt and Caspi 2003; Widom 1996). Recent meta-analytic studies suggest that strength of association of partner violence between parents and offspring is moderate (Stith et al. 2000). This meta-analysis found that the magnitude of the association varies across studies and depends on a number of key factors. Much of the variability lies in the age of onset, chronicity, and severity of the violence. Moreover, research suggests that children’s perceptions, cognitive appraisals of blame, and coping styles influence the degree to which partner violence is learned by offspring (Grych and Fincham 1990). Others find that the co-occurrence of other forms of violence and antisocial behavior in the home and community interact with the occurrence of partner violence to increase the risk of transmission to offspring (Ehrensaft 2005; O’Leary, Tyree, and Malone 1994).
Mechanisms of Transfer
Numerous theories have been put forward to explain the observation that partner violence tends to repeat from one generation to the next (Widom 1989). Originally, social learning theories (Bandura 1977; O’Leary 1988) postulated that exposure to violence between parents may teach children that violence is an acceptable or effective means of resolving conflict with partners. That is, parents model the use of aggression as a means of resolving conflict, and children observe that such behaviors are reinforced by the partner’s compliance. In fact, Bandura’s (1977) research on observational learning of aggression suggests that children are most likely to model observed aggression by others when the behavior of the perpetrator is rewarded, or when the behavior results in the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. This theory has been particularly influential to a line of research investigating the association of partner-violence exposure with attitudes condoning the use of partner violence, both among children and adults (Avery-Leaf et al. 1997; Slep et al. 2001; Wolfe et al. 1998). Others, from the feminist perspective, have highlighted the role of patriarchal social norms condoning the use of violence against women (Johnson 1995;Walker 1989).
However, social learning theory cannot singlehandedly explain the intergenerational transmission of partner violence, since the transfer of violence is not 100 percent. That is, many adults who report partner violence do not have a history of such violence between parents, and not all children who were exposed to violence between parents report subsequently perpetrating or being the victim of violence against a partner in adulthood. Additionally, patriarchal theory has been criticized for failing to account for the high number of nonviolent men and for elevated rates of partner violence in same-sex couples (Dutton 1995). In fact, there is no support for a gender-specific or role-specific pattern of transmission of partner violence, that is, females are no more likely to become victims versus perpetrators of partner violence if they observed their fathers aggressing against their mothers, and males are not more likely to perpetrate versus receive partner violence if they observed father-to-mother aggression (Dutton 1995; Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003; Kalmuss 1984; Kwong et al. 2003).
Until quite recently, theories of partner violence were limited by the field’s near-divorce from the field of antisocial behavior in general (Moffitt et al. 2000). There is now a growing consensus among many scholars that a developmental model is essential to an understanding of the process of intergenerational transmission, because it accounts for the capacity of early experience to set in motion a series of problems in adjustment across the lifespan, but also because it accounts for the fact that the transfer from one generation to the next is less than perfect. One theoretical view integrates the findings from family relations, developmental psychopathology, and basic developmental research on romantic relationships (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003). Beginning in early childhood, children’s relationships with caregivers affect their ability to regulate their behavior and emotions, and their expectations of the behavior of others within close relationships. Those who are raised in relatively warm, caring environments, with caregivers who are consistently responsive to their physical and emotional needs, learn to expect and reciprocate care and affection in these relationships, and they later generalize these models of close relationships to other adults and to their peers (Bowlby 1969). Those who have experienced maltreating home environments are more likely to expect others to have hostile intentions, and have difficulty solving social problems (Dodge, Bates, and Petitt 1997), particularly if the maltreatment occurred when they were very young.
Empirical Evidence for Mechanisms of Transfer
Effects of Direct Exposure to Partner Violence on Child Mental Health. Numerous studies have documented the association of partner-violence exposure with children’s mental health problems (Ehrensaft, Cohen, and Chen in press; Fantuzzo et al. 1991; Jouriles, McDonald, Spiller et al. 2001; Kolbo, Blakely, and Endleman 1996; Wolfe et al. 1985). Though the earlier evidence was almost exclusively from cross-sectional research designs assessing partner-violence exposure and mental health problems simultaneously, more recent prospective longitudinal studies suggest that externalizing behavior problems are more likely to develop in youth who previously reported exposure to partner violence (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003; Fergusson and Horwood 1998). Others have found elevated rates of anxiety (Christopoulos et al. 1987) and depression (Sternberg et al. 1993) among children exposed to partner violence. Several scholars have raised the question of whether the exposure itself exerts deleterious effects on child mental health, as opposed to the numerous other social problems that tend to go hand in hand with partner violence. On the other hand, there is evidence from several prospective longitudinal studies of direct effects on child mental health, even after controlling for other social and behavioral factors (Ehrensaft, Cohen, and Johnson in press). Genetically informed research suggests that exposure to domestic violence damages children’s intellectual and behavioral development, even net of genetic transmission in the family and other co-occurring risk processes (Jaffee et al. 2002; Koenen et al. 2003; Yates et al. 2003).
The mental health effects of partner violence on children are quite variable and appear to depend on several factors. For instance, young age of exposure is estimated to have significant implications for child adjustment. Notably, young children are at highest risk of exposure to violence between their caregivers, or between a caregiver and an intimate partner, for two reasons (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003; Fantuzzo et al. 1997). First, young children spend more time at home than older children or adolescents and are thus more likely to be at home during arguments. Second, intimate partner violence is at its peak prevalence among young men and women of childbearing age and tends to decrease steadily thereafter (O’Leary 1999). These data are of special concern in light of research suggesting that children who experience maltreatment and other forms of familial abuse (e.g., partner violence) before age 8 are at highest risk for experiencing enduring effects (Dodge et al. 1997). Two other factors—higher frequency of children’s exposure to partner violence and their appraisals of interparental conflict—have been shown to influence the odds of child mental health problems (Grych et al. 2000).
Effects of Violence on Maternal Mental Health and Parenting. A number of studies of adults suggest that being the victim of partner violence is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and suicidal behavior (Danielson et al. 1998; Golding 1999; Koss et al. 2003). Previously, the preponderance of evidence came from studies of women presenting to battered women’s shelters, who represent only a tiny fraction of all women who experience intimate partner violence, or from more representative national surveys that asked women to recall their experience of violence and mental health symptoms. More recently, evidence is accumulating to show that partner violence, particularly among women, distinctly leads to mental health disorders, even after accounting for preexisting disorders (Ehrensaft, Moffitt, and Caspi in press). Others have found, among a sample of abused and neglected children, that domestic violence exerts its influence on child behavioral and physical health via its indirect effects on maternal health and well-being and the quality of the mother’s interactions with the child (English, Marshall, and Stewart 2003; Graham- Berman and Seng 2005). Mental health disorders are known to negatively impact parenting practices (Ehrensaft, Wasserman et al. 2003; Wasserman and Seracini 2000), and these parenting practices have in turn been hypothesized to be a primary mechanism for the intergenerational transfer of psychiatric risk (including antisocial psychopathology) from parent to child (Serbin and Karp 2003).
Links of Partner-Violence Exposure with Child Abuse and Neglect. Children who live in households where there is intimate partner abuse are more likely to be abused or neglected than those who do not (English et al. 1999; Saunders 1994; Straus and Gelles 1990). First, there is significant overlap (30–60 percent) in the occurrence of child physical abuse and domestic violence (Appel and Holden 1998), child sexual abuse and domestic violence (Kellogg and Menard 2003), child neglect and domestic violence (Copps-Hartley 2002), and all three types of abuse and domestic violence (Dong et al. 2004; McGuigan and Pratt 2001; Rumm et al. 2000). Exactly how these two types of family violence are linked is not known. However, there is evidence that the effects may be additive; that is, the odds of perpetrating partner violence in adulthood are highest when children both witness partner violence and experience child abuse (Kalmuss 1984).
At the turn of the twenty-first century, researchers have begun to integrate research on exposure to partner violence with research on child abuse, in recognition that these two types of risk factors may have similar effects on the emotional and behavioral development of children across the lifespan (Ehrensaft, Cohen et al. 2003; Ehrensaft et al. in press; Maughan and Cicchetti 2002; Schechter et al. 2004). This approach is particularly promising, especially where there is an integration of the study of both social and biological factors.
Behavioral-Genetic Transmission. Perhaps the newest approach here has evolved with the growth in behavioral genetics research on antisocial behavior. DiLalla and Gottesman (1991) pinpointed the absence of behavioral genetic research on partner violence in explanations of the intergenerational cycle of violence. Although Widom (1989) proposed that physiological processes might mediate the ‘‘cycle of violence,’’ whereby violence by one generation increases the risk for violence by the subsequent generation, she did not iterate a genetic component to this hypothesis. Widom’s hypothesis was not specific to the transfer of partner violence, but as general violence and partner violence share many common risk factors and age-based trajectories, it is conceivable that the observed intergenerational transmission of partner violence has genetic components (Ehrensaft et al. 2003; Hines and Saudino 2002). That is, the interaction of a genetic vulnerability with environmental risk may be most strongly predictive of the intergenerational transmission of partner violence. However, despite the fact that partner violence and antisocial behavior share many characteristics, research shows that they also differ in crucial ways. For instance, partner violence is the only form of violent behavior which females report perpetrating as often as males (Moffitt et al. 2001), and though partner violence and antisocial behavior share a trait called ‘‘negative emotionality,’’ antisocial behavior is predicted by high levels of impulsivity, whereas partner violence is not (Moffitt et al. 2000). To date, there exists no published behavioral genetic studies of partner violence, and we would certainly argue that this area is an important avenue of further research, in view of emerging findings about gene-environment interactions in the transmission of antisocial behavior (Carey and Goldman 1997; Caspi et al. 2003; DiLalla and Gottesman 1991).
Prevention and Intervention
In the 1990s, the National Research Council reviewed existing prevention and intervention programs for family violence and identified fragmentation of the field of family violence research as one of the greatest impediments to designing empirically informed interventions (Chalk and King 1998). Since that review, substantial progress has been made in integrating the findings on the causes and consequences of adult partner violence, child exposure to interparental violence, child abuse and neglect, and the development of antisocial behavior. It remains true that existing interventions for most types of serious partner violence are of limited effectiveness (Dunford 2000; McCord 1992; Stuart 2005). Therefore, it is advisable to advocate a preventive approach to the intergenerational transmission of partner violence. Three approaches, based on the individual’s developmental stage, are proposed.
- Identify and treat antisocial behavior early. Antisocial behavior appears to be an important mediator of the link between childhood exposure to interparental violence or child maltreatment and subsequent involvement in partner violence (Capaldi and Clark 1998; Ehrensaft et al. 2003). Numerous studies have found that child abuse predicts antisocial behavior (Dodge et al. 1997; Jaffee et al. 2004; Widom 1989). Research has shown repeatedly that antisocial behavior is most responsive to treatment when targeted at an early age, though several programs show effects with adolescents as well (Wasserman and Seracini 2000; Blueprints for Violence Prevention). Early intervention would have the advantage of stemming the worsening trajectory of symptoms before the individuals extend such behavior to their intimate relationships, and this would be equally true for males and females (Ehrensaft 2005; Moffitt et al. 2001).
- Public health programs could tie partner violence prevention into existing preventive services. For instance, one could offer incentives to young, economically disadvantaged couples who are expecting a baby and who have a history of violence to participate in empirically supported relationship conflict prevention (Halford et al. 2003; Heyman and Neidig 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe et al. 1995). This intervention could be tied to prenatal counseling.
- Tie partner violence services to existing programs for delinquent youth. Adolescents who are already receiving interventions for serious delinquent behavior are among those at highest risk for partner violence, but they are almost never provided with interventions that would prevent their involvement in partner violence before it begins (Chamberlain and Moore 2002; Ehrensaft et al. 2005). Prevention programs could offer interpersonal communication skills and target the development of other deficits that are the likely outcomes of children’s exposure to family violence, including behavioral and affective regulation, stress reactivity, mistrust of others, and interpersonal avoidance (Dutton 2003; Ehrensaft et al. in press; Ehrensaft, Moffitt and Caspi 2004; Hamberger and Hastings 1991; Holtzworth-Munroe et al. 2003; Moffitt et al. 2000; Stuart 2005).
In summary, the study of the intergenerational transmission has evolved to recognize the complex interactions of multiple forms of family violence and antisocial behavior. Most of the risk factors for such transmission are similar for females and males. The field is now moving to investigate the ways in which these factors interact, including some burgeoning behavioral genetics research. Because serious partner violence is highly resistant to intervention once it becomes entrenched, preventive approaches tied to the risk processes identified here are worthy of further attention.
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