Mechanisms in the Association Between Abuse and Violence: Peer Problems and Social Relationships

Some authors have emphasized the important effects of maltreatment on peer interactions (e.g., Wolfe et al., 1992). In Kent’s (1976) follow-up of foster care children, 54% of the physically abused and 42% of the neglected children had poor peer relationships, compared to 20% of the high-risk comparison group.

The association between abuse and neglect experiences and peer rejection has been documented in numerous studies (e.g., Chapple, Tyler & Bersani, 2005). Kim and Cicchetti (2010) used data from a sample of 6-12-year-old children from low income families. They included measures of both peer acceptance and peer rejection in their model (i.e., “most liked” and “least liked” ratings). Maltreated children had lower peer acceptance and higher peer rejection. Their structural model suggests that neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are associated, either directly or indirectly, with peer acceptance and peer rejection. In these data, emotion regulation mediates that association in some cases.

Banny et al. also report that maltreatment status was significantly associated with both “relational” victimization (akin to peer rejection), and this victimization mediated the effect of maltreatment on depression. Banny used summer camp data collected from children ages 8 to 13 (Banny, Cicchetti, Rogosch, Oshri, & Crick, 2013).

The association is not always consistent. Rogosch et al. found that their physically abused group, but not the maltreated group as a whole, was more likely than the comparison group to be rejected by their peers (Rogosch, Cicchetti, & Aber, 1995). Bolger, Patterson, and Kupersmidt (1998) compared a medium-sized sample of maltreated children to a nonmaltreated comparison group. They report no significant correlations between physical abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment or sexual abuse on measures such as “reciprocated best friendship,” friendship quality and friendship conflict. But they do report that chronically maltreated children were less well-liked by their peers than other children. Using the same data, Bolger and Patterson (2001) delved more thoroughly into the question of peer rejection and report that chronic maltreatment was associated with repeated peer rejection, from childhood into early adolescence.

Several studies have suggested that abuse experience may create a vulnerability for peer victimization. Duong et al. found that maternal physical discipline was associated with victimization by peers in a sample of Hong Kong children, though that association only held true among the aggressive subjects (Duong, Schwartz, Chang, Kelly, & Tom, 2009). Abuse experience was also related with victimization by peers in studies of children who attended summer camp (Banny et al., 2013; Natsuaki, Cicchetti, & Rogosch, 2009).

The relationship goes the other way as well. Spanking has been associated with children’s physical aggression toward their peers in many samples (e.g., Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994). LONGSCAN data also supports this pattern (Graham, English, Litrownik, Thompson, Briggs, & Bangdiwala, 2010). The fact that maltreatment leads to aggression against peers, is important for the obvious reason that aggression is somewhat stable over time, and early aggression can lead to later violence, but it is also important because peer aggression reduces the chances of positive friendships and increases the chances of peer rejection. In Bolger’s sample, chronic maltreatment was associated with higher levels of aggression, which “accounted for a large part of the association between chronic maltreatment and rejection by peers” (Bolger & Patterson, 2001, p. 549); these links were established by early school age.

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