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Correlation Between Family Violence Perpetrator Behaviour and Childhood Experiences of Abuse

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2150 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Assignment: “There is a strong correlation between family violence perpetrator behaviour and childhood experiences of abuse.” Discuss in relation to nature and nurture.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2018 report, “family, domestic and sexual violence is a major health and welfare issue. It occurs across all ages, and all socioeconomic and demographic groups, but predominantly affects women and children.” (AIHW, 2018 p. ix). Determining the causes of family violence is therefore extremely important. This essay will examine the extent to which such causes are due to hereditary factors (‘nature’), developmental environment (‘nurture’), or both.

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In recent decades the nature and nurture issue has become more complex due to developments in fields such as epigenetics which contends that environment can influence genetic makeup (Rettew, 2017). At the same time a 1979 Minnesota study of twins raised separately concluded that “genetic factors have a large influence on behavioural habits demonstrating the influence of the genetics on development.” (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal & Tellegen, 1990). So in addition to evidence that both genes and environment may affect lifespan development, there is evidence that they interact with each other as well.

According to the Australian Law Reform Commission,family violence is: “violent or threatening behaviour, or any other form of behaviour, that coerces or controls a family member or causes that family member to be fearful.”  The report then lists the most common forms of such behaviour which include: physical violence; sexual assault and abuse; economic abuse: emotional or psychological abuse; and causing a child to be exposed to the effects of any of the abovementioned behaviours (ALRC, 2010, p.17).

Experiencing child abuse is only one of a number of non-genetic risk factors for becoming a violent or abusive parent. According to Wolfner and Gelles (as cited in Sigelman, De George, Cunial & Rider, 2019), child abusers are most often unemployed single mothers living in poverty, so current environmental factors interfere with parenting more than developmental ones. However Wolfner and Gelles add that in some cases such mothers may also be abusive because they have poor emotional self-regulation skills and/or have suffered abuse in childhood themselves (Wolfner & Gelles, as cited in Sigelman et al., 2019). The Australian Institute of Childhood Studies website cites several studies where  socio-economic disadvantage, parental mental ill health, parental substance abuse and child abuse were all found to be risk factors for family violence (Fergusson, Boden & Horwood, Fulu et al., Higgins, Temple et al., as cited by AIFC, 2015). Furthermore, gender roles and stereotypes, and violence-supportive attitudes also play a part (Fulu et al., 2013 as cited by AIFC, 2015). A study on generational cycles of intimate partner violence (IPV) supports the case for nurture in the transmission of violence: over 70% of children whose parents had IPV experienced it themselves as adults (Knight, Menard, Simmons & Bouffard, 2013). So there is evidence that family environment or nurture plays a role in the development of violent behaviours, but also evidence that parents’ current circumstances play a major role.

With respect to the role of genetics or ‘nature’,the evidence for its influence is inconsistent. A 2002 study on genotypes in maltreated children concluded that males with low-MAOA (Monoamine Oxidase A) activity genotype who were maltreated were at higher risk for violent conviction than those who were not (Caspi et al., 2002). Based on this the MAOA genotype appears to perform a protective role by reducing the chance of antisocial behaviours developing.More importantly the study shows that genes and environment (‘nature’ and ‘nurture’) working in combination can increase the risk of a child becoming an antisocial and/or violent adult. A more recent study (Byrd & Manuck, 2014) confirms the Caspi et al. research, finding regulatory variation in MAOA moderated effects of childhood maltreatment on male antisocial behaviours. However, another study of more than 4000 individuals could not confirm the hypothesis that the MAOA genotype moderates the relationship between childhood maltreatment and antisocial behaviour(Haberstick et al., 2014). And in their 2010 study, Bevilacqua et al. (as cited in Tiihonen et al., 2014) concluded that “no genes nor their polymorphisms have been shown to explain severe violent behaviour in humans, nor contribute to recidivistic violent offending.” (p.1) Furthermore the 2014 study by Tiihonen et al. found a strong main effect for the MAOA genotype, but maltreatment did not modify the risk in any way. However this may have been to differences in the study population.

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Almost all of the abovementioned sources affirming the role of genetics stress the role of developmental and/or environmental factors too. Barbour (2015) lists a range of factors that can increase the risk of violence in children and adolescents: genetics, poor parenting, exposure to violence, social and economic factors and the media. Following a meta-analysis on data from 24 genetically informative studies, Garcia-Arocena (2015) concludes that “50% of the total variance in aggressive behaviour is explained by genetic influences.” (paragraph 2). The other 50% are caused by the environment and include stress, substance abuse, diet, sleep quality and social relationships also affect the brain. A Swedish study from 2013 based on biological, adoption and police records concluded that with regard to extent of criminality, pre-birth (e.g. ‘nature’) and post-birth (e.g. ‘nurture’) factors were both important, but in terms of degree of criminality, post-birth factors were more significant (Hjalmarsson & Lindquist, 2013). In a paper on perceptions of nature and nurture, Levitt (2013) argues that the two can no longer be separated and that: “the nature-nurture debate is declared to be officially redundant by social scientists and scientists” (paragraph 2). In his introduction to Developmental Origins of Aggression, Hartup (2005) states: “the development of aggression can be understood only when the earliest genetic expressions are examined as nested in early social experience, especially individual social histories and close relationships.” (p. 19). Reif et al. (2007) found complex interactions between serotonergic genes and adverse childhood environments that argue against simplistic, mono-causal explanations of violent behaviour. While the MAOA genotype and adverse childhood environment increased the risk for later-life violent behaviour independently of each other, 5HTT polymorphism (i.e. the l/l genotype) was protective against childhood adversity. Ge et al. (1996) found that: “genetically influenced behavioural difficulties can further exacerbate developmental problems by evoking responses from the interpersonal environment” (p. 587) and proposes a mutual influence model where: “the child acts, the environment reacts, and the child reacts back in a mutually interlocking evocative interaction.” (p. 587).

In conclusion there is evidence that family violence is influenced by both developmental factors and genetic factors. In some cases genetic factors have been found to aggravate the developmental environment, and in other cases they protect children from it. Still other evidence finds no interaction between genetic and environmental factors. However there is a significant third type of influence which is the parents’ current circumstances and environment, and needs to be distinguished from the developmental one. Issues such as parental drug use and health problems also fall into this category although they may be the result of genetic or developmental factors.


         Bouchard, T., Lykken, D., McGue, M., Segal N. and Tellegen A. (1990) Sources of Human Psychological Differences: the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Science 250: pp. 223–228.

  • Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W.,  Taylor, A.,
    Poulton, R. (2002) Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children, Science, New Series, Vol. 297, No. 5582 (Aug. 2, 2002), 851-854.
  • Family Court of Australia (2016), http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/ fcoaweb/family-law-matters/family-violence/what-is-family-violence/
  • Garcia-Arocena,  D. (December 2015) The genetics of violent behaviour [blog post], https://www.jax.org/news-and-insights/jax-blog/2015/december/the-genetics-of-violent-behavior
  • Haberstick B. C., Lessema J. M., Hewitta J. K., Smolena A., Hopferb C. J., Halpern C. T. et al. (2014) MAOA genotype, childhood maltreatment, and their interaction in the etiology of adult antisocial behaviours. Biological Psychiatry; 75: 25–30
  • Hjalmarsson R., Lindquist M. J. (2013) The origins of intergenerational associations in crime: Lessons from Swedish adoption data. Labour Economics; 20: 68–81.
  • Knight, K., Menard, S., Simmons, S. and Bouffard, L. (2013) Generational Cycles of Intimate Partner Violence in the US: A Research Brief, Report No. 2013-01 Crime Victims’ Institute College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University

         Levitt, M.  (2013)Perceptions of nature, nurture and behaviour Life Sciences, Society and Policy 2013 Dec; 9: 13.

  • Omidi, R., Heidari, K., Davari, H., Espanani, M., Poursalehi, M., Naeini et al. (2014) The Relationships between Environmental Factors and Violent Behaviours in Adolescent Students of Isfahan, Iran International Journal of Preventive Medicine Dec; 5(Suppl 2): S97–S101.


         Reif, A., Rösler, M., Freitag, C. M., Schneider, S., Eujen, A., Kissling, C. et al. (2007) Nature and Nurture Predispose to Violent Behaviour: Serotonergic Genes and Adverse Childhood Environment, Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 32, pp. 2375–2383.

         Rettew, D. (2017) Nature Versus Nurture: Where We Are in 2017, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/abcs-child-psychiatry/201710/nature-versus-nurture-where-we-are-in-2017

  • Tiihonen, J.,Rautiainen, M-R.,Ollila,HM., Repo-Tiihonen, E., Virkkunen, M.,Palotie, A. et al. (2014) Genetic background of extreme violent behaviour Molecular Psychiatry Oct; pp. 1–7.
  • Tremblay R E., Hartup W. W. and Archer J. (eds.) (2005) Developmental Origins of Aggression, New York and London: The Guilford Press.


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