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PTSD Helps Explain Link Between Child Maltreatment, Domestic Violence

Mental researchers and public health officials know that people who are mistreated as children have increased odds of perpetrating acts of domestic violence (intimate partner violence) during adulthood. In a study published in late 2014 in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, a team of Canadian researchers evaluated the usefulness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an underlying explanation for the link between childhood maltreatment and domestic violence. These researchers concluded that the presence of PTSD in childhood maltreatment survivors helps account for the aggressive behaviors that characterize violent episodes involving intimate partners.

Child Maltreatment and PTSD

Child maltreatment is a comprehensive term used to define all forms of abusive or neglectful conduct focused on minor children. Specific forms of maltreatment include physical abuse (centered on physical actions such as kicking, burning, punching or slapping a child); sexual abuse (centered on actions that introduce a child to sexual behaviors, sexual situations or sex-related materials only appropriate for adults); emotional abuse (centered on psychologically damaging actions that expose a child to such things as mockery or rejection); and neglect (centered on the absence of at least some of the personal and family-based safeguards that normally protect a child from significant physical or psychological harm).

Physical abuse during childhood and sexual abuse during childhood are two of the most common avenues to the eventual development of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that produces a range of dysfunctional, conscious and unconscious reactions in the aftermath of a traumatic event or situation that threatens life or appears to threaten life. A person with PTSD continues to experience such reactions (which are natural after severe trauma exposure) for at least a month after the originating event or situation, or only develops impairing forms of these reactions a month or longer after the originating event or situation. Women (who are relatively frequent targets of sexual abuse during childhood) develop PTSD more often after trauma exposure than men.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence and intimate partner violence (IPV) are interchangeable terms, although professionals typically prefer the more comprehensive usefulness of IPV. Violence between intimate partners can take forms that include primarily physical acts (punching, slapping, burning, etc.), primarily sexual acts (rape, attempted rape, non-penetrative sexual abuse, etc.), threats that promise the future use of physical or sexual violence, and primarily psychological acts (coercion, stalking, humiliation, isolation, etc.). Millions of people across the U.S. are subjected to intimate partner violence every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Men make up the bulk of perpetrators, although women also commit violent acts against their partners.

Does PTSD Help Provide an Explanation?

In the study published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, researchers from Canada’s University of Montreal and two branches of the University of Quebec used data collected from 114 adults to assess the possible role of PTSD in explaining the link between maltreatment in childhood and perpetration of intimate partner violence in adulthood. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if child maltreatment-related PTSD helps explain some of the anger and volatility issues that underlie instances of violence within intimate relationships. All of the study participants (divided along roughly equal gender lines) were involved in some sort of therapy for issues related to sexual dysfunction or lack of sexual satisfaction. More than four out of five of both the male and female participants (83 percent) were self-reported victims of some sort of maltreatment during childhood. Each individual described his or her level of involvement in violent acts toward an intimate partner, as well as his or her experiences with PTSD symptoms and anger/volatility.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of both the male and female study participants reported the perpetration of psychologically violent acts toward an intimate partner; in addition, roughly one-quarter (24 percent) of the male and female participants reported the perpetration of physically violent acts toward an intimate partner in the previous year. The researchers concluded that, for most of these individuals, childhood maltreatment and the subsequent development of PTSD symptoms fostered an unusually angry/volatile adult mindset; in turn, they concluded, an unusually violent/angry mindset acted as a frequent spark for episodes of intimate partner violence.

Overall, the study’s authors concluded that the development of PTSD in the aftermath of childhood maltreatment plays a significant part in explaining why certain people commit violent acts against their intimate partners. Critically, this finding applies to women who commit such acts just as much as it applies to men who commit such acts.

Posted on September 14th, 2015
Posted in PTSD

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