Over the past decade much has been learnt about the way children respond to experiences of violence in their home and their community. By being able to try to predict the children most at risk from future violence, the society will be able to intervene to reduce delinquency or future violence. The literature on childhood experiences and later violence vary in their eitiology. The suggested evidence, which will be mentioned, will include the experience of childhood abuse; including sexual abuse, physical punishment and maltreatment, the influence of the media and the community and domestic violence within the family.
Assessments of the long-term criminal consequences of childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect was carried out by Widom and Ames (1994), official criminal histories were examined through a large sample consisting of cases of physical abuse, neglect as well as sexual abuse compared to other types of abuse. Widom et al proposed that at adult child sexual abuse victims were at a higher risk of arrest for sex crimes than controls. However this study does not seem to take into account other influences the child may have experienced during childhood, such as their community; schools, peers etc.
Thus the validity in this study is questionable. However studies have also been carried out which suggest that physical punishment and maltreatment during childhood may affect adulthood adjustment. Fergusson and Lynskey (1997) carried out a longitudinal study, the ‘Christchurch Health Development Study’. The relationships between retrospective reports of physical punishment/maltreatment and adjustment difficulties at the age of 18, they concluded that those with a harsh or abusive childhood experience were at increased risks of violent offending, suicide attempts and being a victim of violence.
As with the past study the validity of Fergusson et al’s study can be questioned, firstly retrospective studies question whether accounts of past experiences are accurate and secondly they use the term ‘were at increased risks of offending’, there does not seem to be any ‘hard’ evidence, just because they are at increased risk does not mean that they will become violent offenders, therefore what better predictors are there of future violent behaviour in childhood?
Lockwood and Hodge (1986) suggested that animal cruelty in childhood could be seen as a symptom or a signal of something in the child’s life that may need clinical attention. Research on family dynamics suggests that animal cruelty is a symptom of a family that is disturbed. Cohen (1996) points out that the National Research Council (NRC) suggest that childhood animal cruelty is a powerful indicator of violence elsewhere in the perpetrators life. Duncan and Miller (2002) suggest that children who are cruel to animals are studied as well as adults who were cruel to animals in their childhood.
By looking at both these groups the critiques, in terms of the reliability and validity of the studies, can be controlled. From analysing these two groups of participants the following factors contributing to animal cruelty were child abuse, domestic violence, parental animal cruelty, and a negative home environment. There are a number of studies, which suggest that child abuse may be associated with both childhood animal cruelty and adult violence. A study, which supports this, was carried out by Felthous (1980).
Felthous assessed the childhood background of an animal cruelty group and an assaultive group; he concluded that both groups experienced parental brutality as children, which he defined as “brutal punishments by a mother or father figure”. Again Kellert and Felthous (1985) studied aggressive criminals, non-aggressive criminals and non-criminals and assessed childhood animal cruelty, a history of parental abuse was reported significantly more often by aggressive criminals with a history of childhood animal cruelty when compared to the other samples.
There are very few studies which suggest that domestic violence and animal cruelty are related however, Quinlisk (1997) reported 43% of the children in his study who were to cruel to animals in the families reported to have witnessed animal abuse by the father in the home and DeViney, Dickert and Lockwood (1983) also found that 60% of the mothers in their study had reported at least one member of the family being abusive towards a pet.
The etiology behind childhood animal cruelty is complex; Boat (1995) suggested that parental animal cruelty provides a lack of modelling of appropriate behaviours with animals, hence the child modelling the parent. Felthous however argues that abuse from a parent could increase aggressiveness in a child because the parent becomes “an aggressive object for identification and a model for learning aggressive behaviours”.
The other explanation, which could provide suggestions in this area, involves the development of empathy in a child that has been ‘abused’ by their parents, Ascione (1993) suggested that childhood exposure to violence interferes with a child’s empathy development. However, the etiology of animal cruelty may be a totally different thing to violence on humans. What exposures can cause children to become violent to humans?
There have been numerous studies looking at the effects of the media on future violence in children; the topic is one of great interest to the general public as well as psychologists. Huston, Donnerstein, Fachild, Feshbach, Katz, Murray, Rubenstein, Wilcox and Zuckerman (1992) claimed that the American Psychology Association claims the average American child/teenager views 10,000 murders, rapes and aggravated assaults per year on television alone.
If this is correct shouldn’t we have something to worry about? And shouldn’t this be one of the major causes of the increase in violent criminals? The media and violence debate was highlighted with the murder of James Bulger, by two 10-year-old boys. Violent films, especially “Childs Play 3” and “Juice” were implicated. The judge on the trial suggested that there was a strong link between the exposure to violent videos and the corrupting of the two boys involved in the murder.
This seems to be a strong suggestion; surely there were other factors involved in the corruption of the two boys, such as their social background. The majority of studies have focused on the immediate effects of television violence however, Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski and Eron (1977-1997) carried out a longitudinal study to find whether exposure to violent television related to future violent behaviour in young adulthood, socio-economic status, intellectual ability and a variety of parenting factors were controlled.
It was concluded that childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behaviour for both males and females and also identification with aggressive television characters and perceived realism of television violence predicts later aggression. Bailey (1993) proposed that perhaps ‘individuals are lacking internal boundaries, driven by distorted ideas and have unstable and violent feelings as well as deviant role models from real or fictional sources which suggest that there is an abnormality which underlies and influences young offenders interpretations of screen images’.
Vine (1994) also suggested that background characteristics such as poverty, one-parent families and a lack of parental care and affection coupled with inconsistent discipline have been associated in making young people susceptible to screen images. However, there are numerous methodological flaws associated with studies between violence and violent videos. Retrospective studies as with the childhood abuse studies can prove to be unreliable, as the adults’ accounts of the frequency of watching violent videos during childhood may be inaccurate.
Laboratory studies are sometimes used so that it can be seen how children react immediately to violent videos, however this is not a ‘natural’ setting, how can you relate what a child is ‘expected’ to do during a study in unnatural settings to every child, normally children watch television and then go and play with their friends, they do not act out the aggression immediately as they do in laboratory studies.
Even if the child does act in an anti-social manner after the violent video, how can you tell if this will effect their future development and is not a short-term effect? Pennel and Brown (1999) stated that ‘whether violent videos reinforce violent behaviour and increase the frequency of aggressive acts and anti-social behaviour is open to question’. However, the question needs an urgent answer given the availability of violent video films and the increase in violent offences.
More research needs to be conducted in this area to be able to come to a better conclusion, however it should be kept in mind that children are individuals, and whether a violent video may influence one child it may not necessarily affect another child. If exposure to violence in childhood does predict later violence in adulthood, does the type of exposure of violence during childhood influence the type of violence during adulthood?
Gorman-Smith, Tolan, Loeber and Henry (1997) suggested that specific aspects of family functioning need to be targeted to impact different patterns of delinquent involvement. They also concluded that non-offenders were more likely to come from families with minimal problems and less likely to come from families with multiple problems and disrupted families. Serious chronic offenders were more likely to have come from families with multiple problems including disruption, conflict and lack of parental involvement.
Children who were sexually abused during childhood were at increased risk of becoming a sex offender in later life and as mentioned earlier Fergusson et al concluded that exposure to physical abuse during childhood increased the risk of becoming a violent offender or being a victim of domestic violence. Another area of interest that has been documented involves the exposure of community violence in childhood and future violence. McGee and Baker (2002) concluded that victimization by community violence was positively associated with juvenile offences in a sample of 12-18 year olds African American males.
Preski and Shelton (2001) also found a similar conclusion. They gathered a sample of youths who were detained in the juvenile justice system and they found that those who had been exposed to community violence were four times more likely to have committed serious criminal behaviours. The conclusion that community violence exerts at least some influence on children’s development is a possibility, however this could be due to the effect of the community on the family causing disruption and conflict within the family, thus impacting on the child in later adulthood.
There are a number of factors that have been reported to influence children’s later violent tendencies, however from the evidence there does not seem to be a particular factor which a finger can be pointed at, however it would seem appropriate to assume that all the factors including exposure to abuse (sexual, physical and domestic), family dysfunction, media violence and community violence all play a part in the child’s development of future violence.
Biological factors have also contributed to children’s future aggression, so it is important to mention that violence may be inherited through families, there may be a predisposition which when other factors such as abuse are also involved could increase the risk of future violence to an even high level. Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant, Lizotte, Krohn and Smith (2003) studied three generations of the same family and it was concluded that adolescent delinquency plays a large role in linking the generations in males.
Explanations range from genetic models in which there is a direct transmission of risk from parent to child to shared environment models. The literature conducted In this area of predicting variables in adult violence is vast and it is difficult to find a study which has contributed all of the exposures to violence in childhood and linked them to later violence, however, in order to use the data provided by these studies efficiently, each child should be looked upon as being an individual and by analysing the factors going on in that child’s life, intervention could then taken to help combat future violence.
As many studies have concluded exposure to environmental factors do contribute to a child’s future violence and the family do play a major role in that; ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’, however the order of importance and complicity of these factors should not be underestimated.