Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Study links childhood trauma and adult aggression

Call for trauma-focused treatment of offenders

Children who experience abuse, neglect and family dysfunction have a heightened risk of developing health problems such as obesity, drug addiction, depression and heart disease in adulthood. That common-sense notion is widely accepted, and has been proven in a series of studies funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The Kaiser-CDC project has amassed a large database of the life histories and health trajectories of middle-class residents of San Diego, California.

Now, a San Diego psychologist has deployed that project's Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey to link these negative childhood experiences with adult aggression and criminality, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and child abuse.

In fact, the correlation is additive, the new study found: The more types of adversities a man underwent in childhood, the higher his likelihood of engaging in criminal aggression as an adult.

Men in the study who were referred to outpatient treatment following convictions for domestic violence, sexual offending, nonsexual child abuse or stalking reported about four times as many adverse childhood events as men in the general population. Men convicted of sex offenses and child abuse were especially likely to report being sexually abused as children.

The link between early damage and later aggression explains why treatment programs that focus primarily on criminal acts are not very effective, say psychologist James Reavis of San Diego, California and his colleagues.

"To reduce criminal behavior one must go back to the past in treatment, as Freud admonished us nearly 100 years ago," wrote Reavis and co-authors Jan Looman, Kristina Franco and Briana Rojas in an article slated for the Spring 2013 issue of The Permanente Journal. "Fortunately, evidence exists in support of both attachment-based interventions designed to normalize brain functioning and in the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment."

Why the link between abuse and aggression?

Cumulative experiences of abuse and neglect disrupt both a child's ability to form secure attachments to others and his ability to regulate his emotions, the researchers posit. Thus, men abused as youngsters tend to either avoid intimacy altogether or are at risk to become violent in intimate relationships, due to a "bleeding out" of their suppressed inner rage.


Not only must treatment of offenders focus on healing their "neurobiological" wounds, the researchers say, but the findings also point to the need for more early childhood interventions to stop child abuse before its victims grow up to victimize others.

Stay tuned: A second article being prepared for publication will explore the link between early adversity and dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that modulates stress responses.

The article, "Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality: How Long Must We Live before We Possess Our Own Lives?" can be requested from the first author, psychologist James Reavis of San Diego (HERE). The article includes a copy of the ACE questionnaire, which is potentially useful in forensic cases as a means of quantifying experiences of child abuse and neglect.

1 comment:

  1. I would welcome a comprehensive overview of the term "sexual aggression" and the scope of behaviors which comprise it as well as, for that matter, the closely associated term "sexual violence", which is also quite liberally deployed - both legally and forensically. For terms which have so much power, especially in our legal system, I would say that, amongst lay people, there is little to no appreciation of their scope. Thanks!

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