Mechanisms in the Association Between Abuse and Violence: Emotion Regulation

Another reason that physically aggressive parents may cause chronic violent behavior in their own children is that they help their children learn to regulate their emotions (Huesmann et al., 2011). The development of appropriate emotion regulation has been recognized as an important milestone associated with reduced physical aggression in children. Children develop emotion regulation as part of the normal developmental process (e.g., it is easier to regulate emotions when children are old enough to express themselves verbally), but it has also been shown that they develop emotion regulation in response to role models. Giordano (2010) argues that parents teach children “fundamental lessons about emotions and their management” (p. 138), and this is an important mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of violence. (Emotion regulation is discussed in more detail above.)

Many authors have found that child abuse is associated with poor emotion regulation (e.g., Gratz, Paulson, Jakupcak, & Tull, 2009). Fatout (1990) shares her experiences with abused children in a therapeutic environment. One child asked the therapist, “Can I ask a question without you slapping my face?” (p. 371). Another child poured a cup of punch on the therapist to get her attention. In one instance, children were asked to role play with puppets and act out the story of their “old” families; they attacked other children identified as their play family members. Therapists report explosive aggression in group therapy sessions and attacks on other children and on the children’s own images in the mirror. Trauma victims also have problems with emotion regulation (e.g., Dutton, 1999).

Some authors have found that emotion dysregulation mediates the relationship between maltreatment and aggression (Lee & Hoaken, 2007). In a small sample of disruptive children and adolescents in a summer treatment program, Scarpa (1997) found the highest levels of aggressive behavior in those with both a physical abuse history and signs of emotion dysregulation in the form of cortisol reactivity. Teisl and Cicchetti (2008) compared maltreated to nonmaltreated children and found that physical abuse was associated with poor emotion regulation. Here, physical abuse status was not associated with “aggressive/disruptive behavior” in a model controlling for emotion regulation. In a study of middle school students in North Carolina, experiencing and witnessing family violence was significantly associated with “destructive” anger expression styles (Wolf & Foshee, 2003). The effect of experiencing and witnessing violence on dating violence perpetration was partially mediated by the participants’ style of anger expression. Gratz et al. (2009) found that emotion dysregulation mediated the effects of childhood maltreatment on intimate partner violence in a sample of college students. In a study of participants in a day camp program for inner city children, the effects of abuse on externalizing behavior were mediated through reduced emotion regulation (Kim & Cicchetti, 2010).

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