Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

Understanding Domestic Abusers

Excuse #3: Childhood Victimization or Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)

Being abused or living with a parent who is abusive both traumatizes children and teaches them a great deal. But neither one directly causes anyone to become abusive as an adult.

When we say that violence is “learned behavior,” what we mean is that the child learns:

However, having learned all this neither excuses nor explains domestic abuse. As adults, we choose whether or not to engage in specific behaviors that we learned as children. We also adopt new behaviors as adults that may be directly opposed to what we were taught as children.

Many children who grow up with parental violence also lack models of how to manage stress constructively, resolve conflicts peacefully, empathize with others, and deal with fear and vulnerability. However, this may be less significant than many people think, because most abusers have also learned – from the culture, if not at home – how to interact civilly and non-coercively when they think it’s necessary. They don’t use those skills with their partners, partly because they have learned that they don’t have to.

How does looking at gender help us understand what’s going on?

Boys and girls learn about power and entitlement from many sources, not just in the family. They often take different lessons from living with a father (usually) who is an abuser. The social context within which abuse occurs, what exposure to coercive control teaches children, and the role of an underlying belief that such behavior is legitimate all contribute to this difference. Social norms about gender also shape the different lessons that boys and girls learn from trauma.

Boys

Exposure to a father’s violence can teach boys attitudes that lead to abusive behavior later on, and sons of abusers are more likely than other boys to abuse a partner in adulthood.39,40  But abusive fathers – like other role models –don’t always act consistently. A violent father may bond with his son around shared sexist attitudes41 and at the same time harshly punish the son’s aggressive behavior, thus modeling one behavior while verbally teaching another.42

Sons of abusers are also exposed to all the other models of male dominance that other boys live with – and there’s no clear line between dominant behavior and abusive behavior. Boys who become abusers without ever seeing their own father act abusively can learn abuse-supporting attitudes from media images, cultural role models, societal responses to abuse and the attitudes of their peers. (For instance, some young men teach each other to consider themselves a punk or a coward if they do not respond to perceived disrespect with violence.43 As Bancroft points out, “The cultural influences…are sufficient in themselves to prepare a boy to become an abusive man” but “when culture and home experiences dovetail, each reinforces the other.”44

There are also many boys whose father abuses their mother, who never become abusers themselves.45 They may have had the chance to identify with other, positive, role models or experienced strong sanctions for their own early acts of violence, or they may choose not to act abusively as adults for other reasons.

Implications for Prevention: For ideas about working with boys to prevent domestic abuse, see Coaching Boys Into Men and Ten Things You Can Teach Young Men About Ending Violence Against Women.

Girls

Exposure to parental violence does not appear to teach most girls to act abusively, but it can teach girls that violence is a legitimate way for men to get what they want. This belief can make it more difficult to extricate themselves from a relationship or to seek assistance if they are abused.46

Girls and boys can be equally traumatized by abuse. And if childhood trauma were sufficient to cause people to become abusive, girls whose fathers abuse their mothers should grow up to be abusers as often as boys do – but they don’t. In fact, one study found that while women exposed to IPV were 3.5 times more likely to report IPV victimization later on, men who were abused or exposed to IPV in childhood were 3.8 times more likely to report IPV perpetration.47

Next: Excuse #4: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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  1. Bancroft & Silverman (2002b). Assessing risk to children from abusers, citing Silverman, J., & Williamson, G. (1997). Social ecology and entitlements involved in battering by heterosexual college males: Contributions of family and peers. Violence and Victims, 12(2), 147-164.
  2. Straus, M. (1990a). Ordinary violence, child abuse, and wife-beating: What do they have in common? In M. Straus & R. Gelles (Eds.), Physical Violence in American Families, pp. 403-424. New Brunswick: Transition.
  3. Johnston, J.R., & Campbell, L.E. (1993). Parent-child relationship in domestic violence families disputing custody, Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 31(3), 282-298.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Barrett, J. (2011). Gangs, crews and cliques in school: What to look for and what to do, Mental Health News, 13(2 – Spring),  pp. 21, 24.
  6. Bancroft (2002), p 329.
  7. Browne, A. (1987). When abuse ed Women Kill. New York: The Free Press.
  8. Bancroft & Silverman (2002a).
  9. Whitfield, C.L, Anda, R.F., Dube, S.R. & Felitti, V.J. (2003). Violent childhood experiences and the risk of intimate partner violence in adults: assessment in a large health maintenance organization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18 (2): 166 – 185.