What are the psychological causes and effects of violence?

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Violent behavior erupts in response to the presence or absence of particular psychological and environmental factors. Children growing up in violent households or communities who lack important social and psychological resources have a higher tendency to behave violently and to become adults who are either perpetrators or victims of violence. In poorer households with an unemployed male head of household, women and children are more prone to domestic abuse. The psychological effects of violence include depression and hopelessness in perpetrating adolescents and post-traumatic stress, depression, insecurity, and fear in the victims.
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Many factors, including both external and psychological, can provoke violence. External factors include violent childhood and adolescent home and community environments and intimate partner violence. Experiencing violence can cause victims to behave violently themselves and continue the cycle of violence as adults by becoming perpetrators or victims of violent behavior. Socioeconomic factors play a role in the development of violent behavior, with households in which the head of household is of lower socioeconomic status or unemployed more likely to be affected by violence. However, some children are resilient to the negative effects of violence. Key social and psychological resources appear to be important in the development of this resilience. The psychological effects of violence include feelings of depression and hopelessness and a decreased belief in a positive future in perpetrators, as well as post-traumatic stress, depression, fear, insecurity, and poor self-esteem in victims. These effects can occur in the short term or may develop years after the violence has ended. To break the cycle of violence and reduce the negative psychological effects of violence, it is important to initiate therapy when predisposing factors are identified.

Childhood and Adolescence

Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of violence. The experience of violence as a child can have deep and lasting effects on a person’s development and psychology and behavior as an adult. To understand the causes of violence, it is important to examine both the psychological and environmental factors that can provoke violence. External causes of violence that may occur during childhood include having a violent or neglectful childhood environment, experiencing violence during childhood and adolescence, and viewing violence in the media (including television, films, music, and video games). A longitudinal study of boys found significant correlation between viewing of television violence as eight-year-olds and exhibition of violent behavior as thirty-year-old adults. These experiences may result in desensitization to violence and in the perception that violence is a suitable means of obtaining one’s desires. Impulsivity, learning difficulties, low intelligence quotient (IQ), and fearlessness have also been linked to violent behavior.

Violence breeds violence. Violent individuals often learn violent behavior from family members and friends, including fellow gang members. Children who witness violence are more aggressive and are more likely to become involved in violence as adults, either as victims or perpetrators. Children who are rejected by their parents are more likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and problems with social information processing (for example, interpreting innocuous speech or gestures as hostile), which can then manifest as violence toward their intimate partners. A violent upbringing, combined with a lack of early positive experiences, predisposes a child to becoming involved in violence as an adult. For example, among African American adolescents living in a high-crime, urban environment, those who self-reported use of violence were more likely to be male; to have been exposed to violence, victimization, and family conflict; and to report hopelessness and depression. These adolescents were also more likely to score lower on ratings of purpose in life and the expectancy of being alive at age twenty-five. The adolescents’ scores on these two measures and on hopelessness were correlated with the employment status of the head of the household in which the adolescents lived. African American adolescents from homes with employed heads of households showed higher purpose in life and expectancy of being alive at age twenty-five, as well as fewer feelings of hopelessness. The increased rate of depression among the adolescents who self-reported violent behavior may either be a cause or an effect of violence.

Interestingly, not all children and adolescents growing up in violent homes or communities display violent behavior or become susceptible to violence. It is probable that some children are born resilient. For other children, several factors may influence whether they develop resilience against violence. These factors include the presence of positive role models, exposure to positive behaviors, having supportive relationships, being able to develop self-esteem and self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to cope with a particular situation), and possessing the ability to develop self-esteem in work, hobbies, and creative pursuits. A child growing up in the midst of violence who possesses one or more of these factors, either from birth or through early positive experiences, has a higher likelihood of becoming resilient to violence. The study of urban African American adolescents found less violence among adolescents who participated more frequently in religious activities or who belonged to households with higher socioeconomic status.

Intimate Partner Violence on Women

Socioeconomic factors may also play a significant role in the occurrence of intimate partner violence. Across cultures and ethnicities, violence is most prevalent among the poor. Male unemployment and the resulting inability of men to provide for their families often induce considerable psychological stress. Some unemployed men vent their frustration by exerting violence on their domestic partners. When women start working and become partial or major breadwinners, “male exclusion” may occur, in which the man suffers a crisis in his traditional, masculine identity as the family provider. The results of this gender crisis include confusion, frustration, aggressive behavior, and intimate partner violence. Some men use violence against women in an attempt to reassert their control and regain a dominant male role. In one study of women with unemployed husbands in Papua New Guinea, a higher rate of domestic violence was reported among working wives than among wives who did not work outside of the home. Violence was especially high at the beginning of the year, when couples argued over how to pay school fees. The frustration of men over their inability to provide for their families and their feelings of being threatened by their wives’ perceived independence precipitated violence.

Children and adolescents who experience violence in their homes or communities may learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflicts or to obtain desired objects. Some children, especially girls, may learn to expect violent treatment from others. If these children and adolescents lack resources and characteristics that aid in resilience, they may perpetrate the cycle of violence by behaving violently toward others. Adolescents who practice violence are in turn more likely to experience depression and feelings of hopelessness. They are also more likely to become adults who either practice violence or are victims of violence. In a study of southern female adolescents, sexually abused girls were more likely to have feelings of depression and to experience suicidal ideation. They also had a higher probability of being physically abused and of initiating sexual intercourse at a younger age. A high proportion of children and adolescents (approximately 80 percent) who were physically or sexually abused before age eighteen met the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age twenty-one. These young adults had higher rates of psychiatric disorders, depressive and anxiety symptoms, emotional and behavioral problems, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts at ages fifteen and twenty-one. Overall, their psychosocial functioning was poorer than that of their nonabused peers.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Children

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in children in response to witnessing or experiencing violence, whether in the midst of war or as a result of domestic or community violence. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, PTSD is diagnosed if the following criteria are met: the presence of a stressor that would produce significant distress symptoms in most people; the re-living of the trauma, manifested as recurrent and intrusive memories of the event, recurrent dreams of the event, and the sudden feeling of the traumatic event happening again in response to experiencing a certain environmental or thought stimulus; numbing of responses or withdrawal from the external world, evidenced by diminished interest in activities, detachment or withdrawal from others, or reduced affect; and emergence of at least two of the following new symptoms: being hyperalert or demonstrating an exaggerated startle response, disturbed sleep, guilt at surviving when others perished or guilt over actions performed for survival, difficulty concentrating or impaired memory, avoiding activities that provoke memories of the traumatic event, and intensification of symptoms by experiencing events that resemble the traumatic event.

The impact of trauma on a child depends on several factors. These include the acute or chronic nature of the trauma and the presence of a maternal figure. If the trauma is acute and lasts for a finite period of time, children may need only situational adjustment, in which children assimilate the event into their understanding of the situation and continue living a normal life. This can be performed through reassuring children that they are safe and everything is back to normal. However, if the trauma is chronic or more severe, children may be psychologically affected. Children who have lost parents or whose relationships have been affected because of the traumatic event are especially vulnerable to psychological damage. Psychological symptoms include extreme sensitivity to stimuli reminiscent of the traumatic event and decreased expectations for the future. These children are also more likely to have impaired development and emotional trauma. They may require developmental adjustment, which involves using the children’s key relationships (for example, with their parents and immediate families) to create a new positive reality to replace the worldview that traumatized children are likely to have constructed concerning their self-worth, their attitude toward the world, and the reliability of adults and institutions. Helping children reestablish confidence in the key adults in their lives and in their ability to survive in the world can enable them to better cope with the effects of trauma and danger.

Impact of Intimate Partner Violence

The effects of intimate partner violence on women’s health include both physical and psychological damages, and can take the form of PTSD, depression, fear, and insecurity. A study of married and single mothers in Ontario, Canada, revealed that women who reported past physical abuse were significantly more likely to have experienced clinical depression and lower self-esteem, as well as a feeling that they lacked control. They were also more likely to have chronic physical health problems and to report a lack of social and economic resources. Some of these health effects were experienced years after the occurrence of abuse.


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