WASHINGTON -- Children who witness their parents using violence against each other and who regularly receive excessive punishment are at increased risk of being involved in an abusive relationship as an adult, according to a 20-year study that followed children into adult romantic relationships. In partner violence cases that result in injury, the study finds that being the victim of physical abuse and conduct disorders as a child are also important risk factors. The findings are reported on in the August issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Research shows that violent behavior toward a romantic partner is difficult to change and that more needs to be done to develop prevention programs that identify major risk factors for partner violence before adult relationships develop. Working towards that goal, psychologist Miriam K. Ehrensaft, Ph.D., and other researchers from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute studied 543 randomly selected children who were first contacted in 1975. The youths and their mothers were assessed separately in three follow-up interviews (1983, 1985-86, and 1991-93) regarding demographic, psychiatric and other psychosocial factors. In 1999, a questionnaire on recent life changes, work history, aggressive behavior, intimate partner history, and partner violence was mailed to the participants.
Results indicate that child behavior problems (conduct disorder, or CD) are important predictors of adult partner violence and that exposure to violence between parents and harsh punishment are also risk factors that seem to predict later relationship violence.
"It appears that it is not necessary to develop conduct disorder in order for early family lessons of coercive, aggressive conflict resolution within intimate relationships to generalize to youth's own intimate relationships," say the researchers. "Punishment from mothers may serve as a model for physical expression of anger. This acceptance of coercive, power-based norms as ways of regulating conflict may have direct implications for young adults' means of conflict resolution with partners, independent of a disruptive behavior disorder."
The study also finds that a history of physical abuse by a caretaker appears to directly increase the odds of using similar tactics of conflict resolution in adult close relationships. However, in looking at factors that may predict being on the receiving end of partner violence, the researchers say they were surprised to find that being the victim of child abuse was not a significant risk factor once exposure to violence between parents and harsh punishment were included. "Exposure to violence between parents, which probably begins when a child is young seems to pose the greatest independent risk for being the victim of any act of partner violence," say the authors.
The findings have important implications for prevention programs, according to Dr. Ehrensaft, including targeting families before children reach adolescence. "If families are targeted before children reach late childhood, patterns of excessive punishment may be prevented from becoming entrenched and later reproduced in adolescents' fledgling romantic relationships."
Prevention programs should not just target boys, adds Dr. Ehrensaft, since no sex differences were found in predictors of partner violence. Both males and females who were abused as children or displayed conduct disorders as adolescents were found to be at risk for partner violence. "Preventing women's partner violence as well as men's may be necessary to prevent adverse consequences of partner violence for women."
And finally, the researchers say preventing and treating child disruptive behavior disorders may be a major factor in preventing partner violence.
Article: "Intergenerational Transmission of Partner Violence: A 20-Year Prospective Study," Miriam K. Ehrensaft and Patricia Cohen, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York State Psychiatric Institute, Jocelyn Brown, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Elizabeth Smailes, Henian Chen, and Jeffrey G. Johnson, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York State Psychiatric Institute; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 71, No. 4.
Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/ccp/press_releases/august_2003/ccp714741.html
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