Research Roundup: Understanding How Violence Spreads Across Generations

Photograph of a young woman with her arm around her mother.

Violence begets violence, as the saying goes. Recently, researchers have been looking more closely at how violence is passed from one generation to another -- and from adolescence to adulthood -- in order to understand more about breaking the cycle.

Individual and family risk factors influence intergenerational psychological violence

Four researchers at Iowa State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies collected data from individuals and their partners participating in both the Iowa Youth and Families Project and Family Transitions Project. They focused on three time points—adolescence (14-18), emerging adulthood (19-23), and adulthood (27-31)—to understand how children of violent families grow up to form violent families of their own.

The authors contend that previous similar studies have not accounted for individual and family behaviors experienced during adolescence. Their new research assesses individual risk factors (substance use, sexual activity, low self-esteem, etc.) and family risk factors (psychological violence, family stress over income, etc.) during adolescence, and psychological violence in older ages.

Their findings include:

  • Adolescents whose parents directed psychological violence towards them were more likely to experience or perpetrate later intimate partner violence.
  • Family stressors, such as economic pressure and parental mental health problems, were not associated with intimate partner violence in emerging adulthood, but they were in adulthood.

The authors suggest creating programs that reduce family stress and violent behaviors in the family of origin.

Focusing on verbal and physical violence in adolescence is critical

Research on verbal and physical violence reveals somewhat different findings. Ming Cui, Melissa Gordon, Koji Ueno, and Frank Fincham wanted to know whether adolescents who experience or perpetrate this type of intimate partner violence are more likely than their peers to endure and perpetrate it when they become young adults. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers followed participants from seventh grade into their mid-30s, examining the degree of violence in their adult and childhood relationships.

They found that:

  • Experiencing violence from intimate partners as an adolescent was a significant predictor of becoming a victim of violence once again in young adult relationships.
  • Adolescent intimate partner violence also significantly predicted future violent behavior during young adult relationships.

Cui and her colleagues recommend that youth workers create interventions promoting healthy adolescent relationships for young people in order to curb the continuum of violence that may be triggered by adolescent intimate partner violence.

Addressing emotional regulation as a result of traumatic experiences to address intergenerational violence

Judith Siegel from the Silver School of Social Work at New York University provides an overview of neuroscience research on the inability to process and control one’s emotions. She describes how children’s exposure to traumatic experiences can result in so-called “emotional dysregulation,” which in turn can lead to later intimate partner violence as well as substance use or psychiatric problems.

Siegel writes that emotional dysregulation may manifest in children as angry outbursts or aggression, but also as less-apparent, dissociative behavior, leaving  trauma symptoms unrecognized and untreated.

For programs that prevent and respond to family violence, Siegel recommends applying evidence-based models that work in the treatment of trauma-related disorders, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Emotion-Focused Therapy. Treatments should strengthen security and improve family emotional regulation, with particular attention to children who internalize their distress.

Read the articles

Understanding Adolescent and Family Influences on Intimate Partner Psychological Violence During Emerging Adulthood and Adulthood (abstract). Brenda Lohman, Tricia Neppl, Jennifer Senia, and Thomas Schofield. ) Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 42, No. 4, April 2013.

The Continuation of Intimate Partner Violence From Adolescence to Young Adulthood (abstract). Ming Cui, Melissa Gordon, Koji Ueno, and Frank Fincham. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 75, No. 2, April 2013.

Breaking the Links in Intergenerational Violence: An Emotional Regulation Perspective (abstract). Judith Siegel. ). Family Process, Vol. 52, No. 2, June 2013.

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