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Family Violence


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family violence



Family Violence: When Home is Not a Haven


What do researchers know about this problem and the factors that cause families to resort to harmful, self-destructive behaviors? How can communities help families replace violent relationships with healthy ones?

January 15, 2010—In a world where even ordinary stress on the job or at school can seem battering at times, and outside influences are in constant flux, home, hearth and family are expected to remain steady—a serene and sheltering haven. Home, they say, is where the heart is. 

Unfortunately for many, home can be anything but a safe haven. Men and women alike may find their home a fierce battleground. For children it may be where they are most vulnerable to assault, misuse or deprivation, ironically at the very hands of those who have a duty to safeguard and nourish them. Even the elderly may have reason to fear those who should be their caretakers.

Humans are very social beings: all of our essential needs are dependent in some way on relationships, especially with those who nurture us from birth. The human brain develops in such a way that our stress-response systems are intimately connected to systems that interpret the moods and actions of those around us. When social cues tell us others are calm and safe to be around, our own physiological state is regulated accordingly and we relax our vigilance. On the other hand, when we sense threats or negative emotions, we respond by going on alert.

A stressed state cannot be maintained indefinitely without serious mental and physical consequences. Extended or repeated periods of so-called hyper-arousal can cause changes in the neural system that are very difficult to reverse. It is therefore incomprehensible enough that any human being would feel compelled to abuse and distress another; but it is particularly difficult to understand such inhumanity when it occurs among those who would logically share similar needs, goals and values within the most fundamental group in society, the family.

Unfortunately, however, family violence is not at all uncommon, possibly because of the very fact that families spend so much time together and have so many emotional ties (and therefore potential emotional stressors). But for these same reasons, and because our family impacts our potential as human beings so fundamentally, family violence may be the most harmful form of violence humans can encounter.

What do researchers know about this problem and the factors that cause families to resort to toxic, self-destructive behaviors? How can communities help families replace violent relationships with healthy ones?


The inhumane treatment of family members by their closest relatives—those who above all others should be their protectors and allies—is not a new phenomenon and no society is immune to it. Mostly hidden and historically non-criminalized, family violence may take the form of intimate-partner violence, child abuse, sibling bullying or elder abuse. In addition to physical brutality, researchers often extend the term to cover nonphysical forms of maltreatment such as neglect and psychological abuse, although there is some debate over just how far the definition can be effectively applied.

For example, in their textbook Family Violence Across the Lifespan, Pepperdine University’s Ola Barnett, Cindy L. Miller-Perrin and Robert D. Perrin point out that nearly all children have occasionally pushed, hit or shoved a sibling. Therefore, if all such aggression were defined as family violence, the term would become almost meaningless. On the other hand, some forms of psychological abuse that do not cause overt physical injury may have severe and pervasive human consequences. “In the end, then,” conclude the researchers, “we need a definition of family violence that is narrow enough to avoid labeling every family potentially violent and broad enough to include the concept of nonphysical violence.”

As hard as it may be to define the term, measuring the prevalence of family violence as a social problem has proven no less difficult. The most obvious reason is that the majority of family violence takes place in the privacy of the home, and only a small percentage of occurrences are reported. These tend to be the most tragic incidents—those that result in serious injury or death. Even then, some fatalities may be classified in official records under criminal categories that are not taken into consideration when national and international family violence statistics are compiled.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that in some countries, many violent acts between family members are still not considered crimes. For instance, a United Nations study released in 2006 reported that “at least 102 of the 192 Member States have no specific legal sanctions against domestic violence, and marital rape is not a prosecutable offence in 53 countries.” Even in the United States, criminologists began to categorize certain acts of intrafamilial violence (such as marital rape) as crimes only as recently as the 1970s.

For all of these reasons and more, family violence statistics published by various government sources are widely considered to be underestimates. Barnett and her coauthors call it “such a complex multidimensional problem that no single set of numbers or statistics can adequately capture the phenomenon.” In their view, “the risk of victimization and injury, at least for women and children, is likely greater at home than on the most dangerous city streets.”

Although it may be tempting to believe that the detrimental effects of family violence are limited to its target victim, this is certainly not the case. For instance, in a 2008 study, University of Canterbury researchers Kate van Heugten and Elizabeth Wilson point out that children who frequently witness violence between their caretakers have increased risk of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder: “Also more prevalent are addictions and suicide attempts, and behavior problems including truancy.” In addition, they note, researchers have found higher rates of youth aggression and criminal behavior among adolescents who have been exposed to parental violence.

Not only does the aggressive behavior witnessed by these children place them at greater risk of committing violence, but Eve Buzawa, professor and chair in the Department of Criminology at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, adds that it also increases their risk of becoming victims of sibling violence. Buzawa also explains that the rates of physical abuse and neglect among children exposed to parental violence range “as high as 15 times the national average.”

Of course, children’s individual capacity for resilience affects how they will react to the violence they observe and experience: not all children exposed to violence become violent themselves (see “Who Am I? The Question of Teen Violence”). But just as extended family can strengthen protective factors leading to resilience in children exposed to family violence, so the tolerance of violence by the surrounding community (including the media) plays a role in how negatively children are affected by violence in the home. As Miller-Perrin told Mom Psych, “as a culture, we need to work at being less accepting of the different forms of [family] violence.”

Certainly any community that tolerates interpersonal violence between parents sets the stage for this cycle to continue into the next generation. And according to Barnett and her Pepperdine colleagues, some communities do just that. The example they cite is an extreme one, but it effectively makes the point of how blatantly—and errantly—communities may send messages about their tolerance of violence:

Raymond Kree Kirkman was a 28-year-old building contractor whose estranged wife, Sandra, was filing for divorce. The original story, published in People magazine on November 4, 1985, describes the Enumclaw, Washington, resident as a man who “ran out of things to throw” and “emerged as the Rambo of domestic warfare.” One morning, after canceling his wife’s home insurance and obtaining the necessary permits, Kirkman and a coworker demolished Sandra’s three-bedroom bungalow and its contents using a bulldozer and a backhoe. Fortunately, Sandra and the couple’s three children were away from home at the time.

“Kree Kirkman became an overnight hero to the macho movement,” wrote reporter Montgomery Brower. He interviewed locals about the story, commenting that “in taverns and other male gathering places of surrounding King County, . . . sentiment ran in favor of bulldozer vengeance. ‘They just think it’s wonderful—that he really got even with her,’ said Joan Smith, a bartender at Twentieth Avenue Tavern in Seattle’s working-class Ballard district.”

What Kirkman’s community supporters ignored in news reports was the fact that Kirkman and his wife had separated because he had declared that he no longer loved her. The couple had gone for counseling, but Kirkman fell asleep during the session. Still, whoever might have been technically “at fault” in the marriage, the message sent by Kirkman’s supportive community members was that violent, vengeful attitudes and behaviors have a legitimate place in marital disputes. Unfortunately, far too many couples believe it.


Interpersonal violence among adults in a family setting was once referred to in research as “domestic violence,” “marital abuse” or “spouse abuse.” However, a broader term was considered necessary to cover violence that occurs between current as well as former marital partners, separated marital partners, and current and former cohabiters. As a result, the term intimate-partner violence (IPV) has now entered into general use among researchers; its definition is sometimes expanded to include violence between individuals who have an intimate dating relationship.

The broadening of such definitions is important, particularly in communities where marriage is declining. Early research into family violence neglected to separate data relating to married couples from that relating to cohabiting couples. The assumption at the time was that differences between the groups were unlikely. However, more recent research conducted in the United States and Canada consistently indicates that IPV is significantly more prevalent among cohabiters than among married couples when the two groups are considered separately. A 2006 study conducted among five Latin American cultures found similar results. “If a woman cohabits in Latin America,” wrote authors Dallan F. Flake and Renata Forste, “she is more likely to experience violence than if she is married.” Further, they note, “while marriage is critical to reducing abuse among Latinas, there is a tendency for women to cohabit rather than marry. That cohabitation rates are increasing in every Latin American country is a major concern, as it signifies that more and more women are inadvertently placing themselves at risk of partner violence.”

Other factors related to an increased risk for IPV include lower socio-economic status, cultural attitudes condoning male violence against women, exposure to parental violence, and failure to learn effective problem-solving and anger-management strategies in childhood. Couples engaged in IPV tend to communicate more negatively than nonviolent couples, using anger, contempt or hostility rather than looking for ways to exit arguments. They also frequently underestimate the quality and number of positive actions exhibited by their partners.

Although substance abuse and marital dissatisfaction are often associated with IPV, researchers do not necessarily see them as causal factors. It’s true that substance abuse can increase the odds and intensity of violence in men already prone to battering, but Barnett’s team at Pepperdine found that “men who batter when they are drinking may also batter when they are sober, and the vast majority of men who consume even large quantities of alcohol never batter female partners at all.” Buzawa also cites research reporting that “men who supported the idea of hitting a partner, but who rarely consumed alcohol, had higher rates of actual [domestic] violence than men who were heavy drinkers but did not approve of violence toward a partner.” However, the highest rates of battering occurred among those men who supported violence against women and who were also heavy drinkers. This suggests that attitude toward violence is a more important factor than alcohol abuse.

Of course, women can be violent too. Survey scales developed to measure the tactics used by men and women in resolving conflict suggest that women are theoretically capable of committing as much IPV as men. But size, strength and other disparities naturally affect the symmetry of intimate-partner violence. According to the Pepperdine researchers, “women are more frequently physically and sexually assaulted, more frequently injured, more frequently stalked, and more frequently murdered by intimates.” In addition, they write, “clinical studies typically reveal that when assaulted female partners are violent, they are often reacting to what is being done to them, rather than initiating confrontations.”

Another disparity affecting the gender symmetry of IPV is the fear factor: women report higher levels of fear generated by violent partners than do men. In addition, women’s fear tends to include concern for the safety of children and other loved ones, and, if she contemplates leaving, fears of homelessness or retaliation.

Oddly enough, despite the many obstacles faced by women who are victims of IPV, friends, extended family and even authorities may not fully appreciate a victim’s perceived—as well as very real—barriers to severing ties with the abuser. Even when they are willing, authorities are often unable to adequately protect women and their children from retaliation by violent partners, yet legal standards require women to leave abusive situations or be held guilty of neglect. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that women or their children will be safer after leaving the violent partner. Barnett and her team explain that assaults often increase when victims attempt to leave: “Many IPV perpetrators threaten their victims with death or inform the victims that they will take the children, hurt the children, or both. Based on perpetrators’ past behavior, victims have every reason to believe they will carry out their threats.”

But a victim must overcome other hurdles in order to leave an abusive partner. Because IPV is most prevalent among low-income families, women are often economically dependent on their partners and may lack the necessary education to support themselves and their children on their own, yet shelters are notoriously few and lack the resources needed to accept all applicants. In some cities, a significant number of women and children are routinely turned away from these shelters. In addition, as incomprehensible as it may seem, friends and family sometimes encourage a woman to stay and repair the relationship, leaving her with the not-so-subtle impression that she is somehow to blame for the abuse.

When these concerns are considered alongside potentially complex psychological ties to the violent partner, the barriers to leaving can seem insurmountable. Too many women therefore either don’t leave their violent partners, or they return to them at the first sign of remorse, even before any real behavior changes can be seen. As a result, their children are exposed to the risk of learning (and suffering) abuse as well.


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fatalities resulting from child maltreatment increased fairly steadily between 2002 and 2007, peaking at between two and three deaths per 100,000 American children—although again, such incidents are considered to be underreported. But fatalities are only the tip of the child-maltreatment iceberg: for every 100,000 children in the general population, an estimated 1,000 or more were victims of some kind of maltreatment, and more than half of these were under the age of seven. There has been some good news, however. Between 1992 and 2000, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse in the U.S. declined by about 40 percent.

Sharon G. Portwood, executive director of the Institute for Social Capital at Charlotte’s University of North Carolina campus, notes that “the vast majority of child victims (57 percent) suffer from neglect, followed by physical abuse (19 percent), sexual abuse (10 percent), psychological or emotional abuse (7 percent), and medical neglect (2 percent).” In roughly 80 percent of the reported cases, one or both parents perpetrated the abuse.

When all forms of violence are considered, women and men are found to be equally likely to physically abuse children, and women as well as men have been known to sexually abuse them. It should be noted that although the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by males, this does not mean that biological fathers are the most common perpetrators. Those few studies that differentiate between biological fathers, stepfathers and other family members have found that biological fathers—especially those who are engaged and active in caretaking—are less likely than other male relatives to engage in child sexual abuse.

Sadly, however, birth parents are most often responsible for child physical abuse, especially that resulting in death for children under five. According to David Finkelhor, University of New Hampshire sociology professor and codirector of the Family Research Laboratory, “these preschool victim homicides appear to be mostly cases of fatal child abuse that occur as a result of parents’ attempts to control children or angry reactions to some of young children’s aversive behavior—uncontrollable crying, hitting parents or siblings, soiling themselves, or getting dirty. Such children,” Finkelhor says, “are frequently thrown against hard surfaces, struck hard with a blow to the head or belly, or smothered.

While death from child abuse is horribly tragic, children who survive are not necessarily “lucky.” Many of these grow up with mental and emotional problems leading to high-risk and criminal behavior, and parents who have been abused as children are at high risk for abusing their own children and continuing the cycle.

As one would expect, many of the risk factors connected to child maltreatment are similar to those connected to IPV: impoverished social networks, community violence, domestic violence, and substance abuse, among many others. University of Chicago researchers Matthew W. Stagner and Jiffy Lansing note that while some also list poverty as a risk factor, its validity is diminished by the fact that families in lower-income neighborhoods are more likely to be reported than those in higher-income neighborhoods.

On the other hand, protective factors against child maltreatment include “nurturing and attachment between family members; knowledge of parenting and child development; parental emotional resilience; . . . and concrete supports such as food, clothing, housing, transportation, and services.”

The importance of attachment between family members has long been underscored by clinical research, and studies of abusive parents note deficits in this area. Typical characteristics of violent parents include anger control problems, low levels of empathy, and poor problem-solving skills. Barnett and her associates also observe that compared to nonabusive adults, “abusive individuals have been found to have unrealistic expectations and negative perceptions regarding their children.” In addition, they write, “such parents exhibit numerous deficits in child management skills. Compared with nonabusive parents, physically abusive parents interact with their children less; when they do interact with their children, they display higher rates of directive, critical, and controlling behavior and a higher frequency of verbal and physical aggression.”

Interestingly, one study measuring the physical responses of mothers found that while both abusive and nonabusive mothers responded to a crying infant with increased stress, only the abusive mothers displayed increased stress responses to smiling infants as well. Could these patterns of interaction have been learned by the abusive mothers through other relationships? Given what is known about how neural patterns are shaped by repetitive human interactions, this is likely, even when genetic predispositions are present. To at least some degree, human patterns of interaction are learned from those with whom we interact most regularly, just as other patterns of behavior are learned. The good news is that in many cases, a number of these patterns can also be unlearned.


How can communities help families unlearn negative patterns and replace violent relationships with healthy ones?

If interventions focus only on the primary abuser, especially as dysfunctional interaction becomes entrenched, there is little chance of preventing the abuse cycle. A key reason is that dysfunctional families tend to interact minimally with their community. Yet parents, children and extended family, as well as the surrounding community, all have a part in the healing and prevention cycle—not only in the detection and prevention of current abuse, but also with an eye toward strengthening the social fabric that contributes to the mental and physical health of future generations. The levels of violent family dysfunction reported by global agencies suggest a need to address families and communities as a whole with the aim of restoring secure attachments, functional relationships, and family and community resilience. This is often attempted through family training and support programs (such as improving new-parent competence), school-based programs, and community awareness campaigns—including those increasingly being implemented in the workplace.

Barnett, Miller-Perrin and Perrin of Pepperdine remark on the irony that “a teenager cannot legally drive an automobile without first receiving appropriate training and passing a test to obtain a license, but the same teenager can become a parent without any interference from the state. No doubt it has to be this way,” they acknowledge, “but the fact remains that many who assume the role of parent are not adequately prepared to do so.”

For this reason, and because it is in adolescence that children tend to form their first “real” intimate ties, many scholars strongly support school-based programs for teaching the importance of nonviolent relationships.

And while home-based programs tend to address child abuse more than other forms of family violence, some researchers believe that broader training programs could lower IPV rates as well. “Because child abuse and marital violence are correlated and share many risk markers,” suggest the Pepperdine researchers, “families identified as being at high risk for child abuse are also likely to be at high risk for marital violence. To the degree that programs provide families with networks of support and emphasize positive family functioning, violence-free interactions, and recognition of the triggers of violence, they might have ameliorative effects on rates of marital violence.”

Of course, because socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment and unmarried teen pregnancy are also associated with family violence, it would seem logical for communities to be concerned about these issues as well—and, generally speaking, they are. But these issues are also very complex and have defied sincere efforts for generations.

On the other hand, research suggests that individual family violence may have more to do with a neighborhood’s acceptance of violence than with its perceived level of social disadvantage. In a study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice in April 2008, Deeanna M. Button examined the effect of neighborhood status on attitudes toward family violence. She found that a neighborhood’s acceptance of crime may influence those attitudes to at least some degree and concludes that “to end family violence, there needs to be an end in the societal toleration for the aggression that takes place between family members. A shift in attitudes needs to occur.”

To psychiatrist Bruce Perry, such a shift would begin by ensuring secure, enriching relationships for children. A researcher specializing in child trauma, Perry also has a background in neuroscience. “Our society’s general disrespect for the importance of relationships is undermining the development of empathy,” he says in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, a book of case studies coauthored with journalist Maia Szalavitz. “Like language, empathy is a fundamental capacity of the human species, one that helps define what a human being is. But like language, empathy, too, must be learned. Ordinarily we pick up both during early childhood.” However, as Perry’s case studies illustrate, all too often children’s lives allow little time for social interaction, even with parents. Unfortunately, in the absence of “a caring, vibrant, social network,” says Perry, the development of empathy is stunted.

Other researchers are also recognizing an important connection between individual, family and community factors. Oddly, some refer to this understanding as a “new frontier” in family violence prevention. Still, it should come as no surprise that children and families need strong connections to each other and to healthy communities in order to thrive. However, a community that tolerates violent and vengeful behavior—whether in its homes and streets or depicted routinely in its entertainment—can hardly be considered healthy. Nor can it expect its children to reject violence as an acceptable approach to resolving conflict.




1 Ola Barnett, Cindy L. Miller-Perrin and Robin D. Perrin, Family Violence Across the Lifespan, 2nd ed. (2005).  2 Eve Buzawa, “Victims of Domestic Violence” in Victims of Crime, edited by Robert C. Davis, Arthur J. Lurigio and Susan Herman (2007).  3 David Finkelhor, “Developmental Victimology: The Comprehensive Study of Childhood Victimizations” in Victims of Crime, edited by Robert C. Davis, Arthur J. Lurigio and Susan Herman (2007).  4 Dallan F. Flake and Renata Forste, “Fighting Families: Family Characteristics Associated With Domestic Violence in Five Latin American Countries” in Journal of Family Violence (January 2006).  5 Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing (2006).  6 Sharon G. Portwood, “What We Know—and Don’t Know—About Preventing Child Maltreatment” in Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma (2006).  7 Matthew W. Stagner and Jiffy Lansing, “Progress Toward a Prevention Perspective” in The Future of Children (Fall 2009).  8 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Child Maltreatment 2007 (2009).




First Published: Winter 2010 Issue Vision Journal

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