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The Impact of Experiencing and Witnessing Family Violence during Childhood: Child and Adult Behavioural Outcomes

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Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to review the literature that explores the short- and long-term effects of witnessing and/or experiencing physical abuse in childhood. It has been postulated that individuals who have witnessed and/or experienced abuse are more likely to become perpetrators of abuse. This notion is referred to as the "cycle of violence" hypothesis. In an examination of the empirical support for this hypothesis, Widom (1989) concluded that violence in the family of origin did increase an individual's risk for becoming violent in adulthood. Nevertheless, violent behaviour by victims and/or witnesses was not inevitable. Furthermore, there were numerous methodological shortcomings characterising research in the area. The goal of this report is to provide an update on the "cycle of violence" research published in the years since Widom's summary, with an eye toward determining whether the problems described in the earlier review have been addressed in subsequent investigations. The sequelae associated with viewing and experiencing abuse are described for children, adolescents and adult victims.

Much of the research addressing the impact of family violence on children has been conducted with agency-identified samples. Parents' current level of violence is assessed and related to children's concurrent adjustment. Although this type of research does not directly address the question of whether abused children will themselves become abusers, these studies are valuable given the evidence that aggressive children can remain aggressive into adulthood. The studies reviewed indicated that being abused seems to lead to more severe behavioural outcomes than does witnessing violence, while the experience of both forms of violence represents the most potent predictor of childhood aggression. However, many of the research design flaws pointed out in Widom's (1989) review are present in investigations currently being conducted.

Methodological problems also plague the research conducted with adolescent and adult samples. One notable problem is the reliance on retrospective designs. In addition, most adolescent research deals with the question of delinquency among former abuse victims/witnesses, despite the evidence that a phenomenon analogous to spousal abuse exists among adolescent dating couples. Methodological shortcomings prevented definitive interpretation of the research related to dating violence but there was a relationship between having a history of abuse and violent delinquent behaviour.

Among adults, there was evidence that both witnessing and experiencing family violence in childhood were associated with violence in the adult family. Research with offenders indicated that a very high proportion of this population had a history of witnessing violence or being directly victimized. Although the studies reviewed had limitations that prevent firm conclusions regarding the strength of the relationship between childhood victimization and later perpetration of abuse, an abuse history was found to be related to both family-directed and stranger-directed violence that came to the attention of the justice system. This finding reinforces the importance of making violence treatment programs available to offenders, something that the Correctional Service of Canada has already taken the initiative to do. Specifically, those with a history of victimization must be identified as "at risk" for perpetrating abuse and encouraged to participate in family-related programs that teach skills which provide alternatives to violence.

In an effort to clarify the relationship between childhood abuse received and abuse perpetrated in adulthood, future research on the "cycle of violence" should involve the increased use of prospective designs as well as studies exploring the effect of the amount of violence witnessed. In addition, it would be valuable to conduct investigations of factors that may prevent individuals from repeating the abuse that they have experienced and/or witnessed.