Mechanisms in the Association Between Abuse and Violence: Negative Emotionality

Another mechanism through which abuse can lead to violence is by causing chronic negative emotionality (discussed earlier in this chapter). Many types of abuse may cause violence, in part, by causing extreme emotional agitation. Abuse, unlike many other “causes” of crime, is likely to engender strong emotions that psychological theories of physical aggression tend to feature. In his general strain theory (GST), Agnew (1992) proposed that strain leads to offending, but the association is mediated by anger. According to GST, when an individual responds to stressful situations with anger, rather than other coping mechanisms, he or she will be more likely to respond with a delinquent behavior. Assuming that abused children are more likely to experience negative emotions, we would predict greater delinquency among them for this reason.

Negative emotion has been seen in numerous studies of abused children (e.g., Howes & Espinosa, 1985), and there is evidence that abuse causes long-term negative emotionality. A review of research on social behavior by abused children suggests that abused and neglected children have more tantrums, chronic crying, depression, enuresis, and hypervigilance (Conaway & Hansen, 1989).

In empirical studies, child abuse victims have exhibited higher levels of anxiety (Ethier, Lemelin, Lacharite, 2004), anger (e.g., Brezina, 1998; Epps, Carlin, & Ward, 1999; Loos & Alexander, 1997; Maschi, Bradley, & Morgen, 2008), and depression (Loos & Alexander, 1997; Maschi et al., 2008) than nonabused children. Shields and Cicchetti (1998) found that physically abused children had more emotional lability/negativity and inappropriate affect than other inner city children. Kent (1976) found substantially higher levels of severe tantrums among abused children (physically abused or neglected) than a high-risk comparison group. Egeland et al. have reported “considerable negative emotion” among physically abused subjects (Egeland, Sroufe & Erickson, 1983). Dutton (1999) links traumatic stessors in early childhood to “intimate rage.”

Despite these many examples, there is no consensus regarding the mediating role of negative emotions in the path between abuse and later violence. Scaramella and Conger (2003) found that “hostility” toward children was only passed from generation to generation among families where the child had negative emotional reactivity. In a survey of Icelandic adolescents, sexual abuse was significantly associated with anger (Sigfusdottir, Asgeirsdottir, Gudjonsson, & Sigurdsson, 2008). In that study, sexual abuse remained significantly associated with general delinquency, even controlling for the anger-delinquency association, however. In a study by Maschi and Bradley (2008) anger did not fully mediate the association between trauma, in the form of exposure to violence, and violent offending. In another study, trauma in the form of exposure to violence was still significantly associated with violent behavior, controlling for anger (Maschi & Bradley, 2008). This was true for violent offending but not property offending. In one study the authors empirically demonstrated paths from maltreatment to anger and anxiety which were, in turn, associated with serious delinquency (Hollist, Hughes, & Schaible, 2009).

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