Abuse Victimization, Trauma, and the Differential Etiology of Violence


The conventional wisdom holds that children who are abused will become delinquents. The “intergenerational transmission of violence” thesis, which posits that physically abusing children will cause them to later abuse their own children, is a more specific statement which conveys the expectations of most people. We devoted a sizable portion of Chapter 2 to the reasoning behind expected associations between child abuse victimization and subsequent violent behavior in victims. Predictions from that line of reasoning have been corroborated in empirical research. Studies of offenders from around the world routinely suggest that a large proportion of criminals have been abused during childhood. In a study of prisoners in Finland, 60% of adult property offenders and 83% of violent offenders had received child protective services (Hamalainen & Haapasalo, 1996). In a Dutch study, 29% of minors involved in murder or manslaughter cases had been under child protective services at some time prior to their crime (Nieuwbeerta & van der Laan, 2006). One study reports that 38.3% of a sample of offenders in Osaka, Japan, had experienced “harsh discipline” during their childhoods (Bui, Farrington, Ueda, & Hill, 2014).

In a study of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States, Lewis et al. (1988) chronicle the physical abuse experiences endured by all but one of them. These boys were beaten with blows to the head (one was hit in the head with a hammer; another had a plate broken over his head). Others were seated on a hot burner, whipped with cords, stomped, and sodomized. Though it is difficult to disentangle the unique effects of abuse on violent offending, a shocking level of abuse has been found in the background stories of serious violent offenders in every qualitative study we have seen on the topic.

In this chapter, we examine the extant literature to see whether it indicates that abuse victimization leads to violent antisocial behavior in particular. In earlier chapters, we included all studies of physically aggressive and violent behavior.

Because of the large number of studies and our assessment that the association between abuse and violence is fairly settled, this chapter will emphasize the primary research question of this book: whether abuse is differentially associated with violent versus nonviolent offending. We will first provide a summary of the research on abuse and violence, outlining the findings on the three broad categories of abuse (physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse). Then we will proceed to our formal tally of study findings across those types of abuse. That analysis will be confined to studies where the authors include both violent and nonviolent offending, or otherwise provide a comparison that is relevant for our purpose.

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