‘Intergenerational Cycle of Violence’ Explained & How to Break It

You might have watched some documentaries or crime series where experts try to find causal relationships between the person’s delinquency in adolescence, their later involvement in criminal activities and experiences of traumatic events in childhood.

Perhaps this might not be the most appropriate example because some children are more resilient under various mediating factors (such as their age, gender, coping ability and social support)[1]; however, it represents the intergenerational transmission of violence in the simplest way.

This article is written for all caregivers, community volunteers, parents who hope to reduce the stigma on their next generations, and those who have witnessed traumatic events and wish to clear their thoughts.

This notion suggesting the abused children would become crime perpetrators of violence in the future has started to attract the public’s notice since the publication of a clinical note in the 1960s, ‘Violence Breeds Violence – Perhaps?’[2].

Theorisations and empirical studies based on this issue grew prominently in order to explain the mechanism underlying this cycle of violence and, ideally, investigate effective interventions to ‘break’ the cycle.

Research shows impacts on the child’s development can begin during the mother’s pregnancy with overwhelming stress.

[1] Humphreys, C. (2007). Domestic violence and child protection: Challenging directions for practice. Issues paper 13. Sydney: Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse

[2] Curtis, G. C. (1963). Violence breeds violence–perhaps? American Journal of Psychiatry.

However, there is a common misunderstanding in the routes of experiencing trauma in violence surrounded households: most parents would keep their children away from the violent episodes; however, they oversee the detrimental impact of witnessing these events. Children are also more susceptible to tensional relationships and experience psychological distress even though they never see the actual physical conflict.

Research shows impacts on the child’s development can begin during the mother’s pregnancy with overwhelming stress[3]. Regardless of the severity, frequencies, or modes of exposure to the children’s traumatisation since they were born, all of them might exhibit negative impacts in different ways, including social/emotional and physiological /physical development[4]; also, a risk in one of these areas is likely to cause interruptions in the other without consistent caregiving.

The social learning theory explains how children observe and imitate behaviours in their social contexts, which reform their cognitive processes without necessarily involving direct reinforcements[5]. Parents’ violent behaviours are particularly salient because they are models of high status from the children’s perspectives. When reaching school age, effects on boys whose parents reported DV could be seen through externalised behaviours such as aggressiveness and disobedience, while girls exhibit internally through anxiety and depression[6].

Learning theory in teen dating violence is represented by boys ‘learning’ to be abusers and girls ‘learning’ about[7]. This ‘transmission’ is proven by research evidence showing 10-20% of adolescents with historical exposure to family violence were reported teen dating violence.


On the other hand, Attachment Theory contends the importance of relationship and attachment between the children and their caregivers in its subsequent effects on interactions with other interpersonal relationships, such as peers, other caregivers and future partners[8].

According to the theory, inconsistent or absence of attachment from the primary caregivers contributes to unhealthy worldview development and hostile behaviours due to detachment with others. Conversely, it also supports that research indicating that some children’s ability to cope with the hardship of living in a DV setting is linked to their mothers’ ability to maintain mothering functions, to model assertive and non-violent responses of abuse and to maintain positive mental health[9]. Upon which, we may extend some other practical resolutions on ‘breaking the intergenerational cycle’.

Existing initiatives introduced by Australian jurisdictions have been focusing on legal provisions; they set out frameworks for domestic violence response and aim to minimise the impacts of exposure. Across jurisdictions, mandatory reporting requirements have also assisted in increasing the community’s awareness in the first place and removing the vulnerable child from a suspected violent family.

However, contact with the police can be confusing or frightening for young children, considering the chaos they have experienced. Guardians, health professionals, and community members may look for therapeutic programs that emphasise children’s safety and well-being and establish bonds to develop attachments rather than exacerbate:

Multisystem Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based treatment to reduce youth violence and effects mitigated by child abuse and neglect[10]. This intensive therapy involves a team of professionals visiting the family multiple times a week and being ready for their needs 24 hours a day. Its supportive program includes providing caregivers’ disciplines, enhancing family relations, increasing association with prosocial peers, etc. Randomised clinical trial received MST has shown a decreased level of neglectful parenting and psychological aggression in parents and children[11].

Interventions focusing on maltreated children alone incorporate more education on abusive behaviours or cognitive skills. For example, Wolfe, Wekerle and Scott proposed a program in reducing dating violence among teenagers between 14-16 with histories of maltreatment[12]. Activities consist of education on healthy and abusive relationships, communication skills and conflict resolution. Overall, researchers observed reduced incidents of abuse among participants and decreased levels of emotional distress over time.

Finally, in response to pregnant women facing distress with violent partners or those with histories of child abuse, the Nurse-Family Partnership Program provides effective support for low-income and first-time pregnant mothers. By involving regular home visits with prenatal care education, assistance with reduction of substance use and knowledge on child development, families that received visit programs had a 56% relative reduction in encounters for injuries (due to violence) in the emergency department during the children’s second year of life[13]. In a longitudinal trial following results of mothers and children for 15 years, women visited by nurses during pregnancy were less likely to be perpetrators of child abuse of negligent parents compared to those without visits[14].

To break the intergenerational cycle of violence is to know what’s making it ‘vicious’; by stopping the transmission between parents to children or between children to future partners.

The above examples only provide a practical direction for readers; As mentioned initially, there are many other mediating factors to be investigated in developing children’s resilience.

It takes all parties’ efforts to minimise the harm, from day one of the mother’s pregnancies to the children’s adulting journey.

[1] Humphreys, C. (2007). Domestic violence and child protection: Challenging directions for practice. Issues paper 13. Sydney: Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse

2 Curtis, G. C. (1963). Violence breeds violence–perhaps? American Journal of Psychiatry.

3 Howell, K., Barnes, S., Miller, L., and Graham-Bermann, S. (2016). Development variations in the impact of intimate partner violence exposure during childhood. Journal of injury and violence research. 8:1, 43-57.

4 Pfouts, J., Schopler, J., and Henley, H. (1982). Forgotten victims of family violence. National Association of social workers

5 Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

6 Meltzer, H., Doos, L., Vostanis, P., Ford, T., and Goodman, R. (2009). The mental health of children who witness domestic violence. Child and family social work, 14: 491-501.

7 Payne,B., Triplett, R., and Higgins, G. (2011). The relationship between self-control, witnessing domestic violence, and subsequent violence. Deviant behavior, 32: 769-789.

8 Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Attachment, Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

9 Ibid 1

10 Swenson, C. C., Schaeffer, C. M., Henggeler, S. W., Faldowski, R., & Mayhew, A. (2010). Multisystemic therapy for child abuse and neglect: A randomized effectiveness trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 497–507.

11 Ibid 10

12   Wolfe, D., Wekerle, C., & Scott, K. (2003). Dating violence prevention with at-risk youth: A controlled outcome evaluation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 279–291.

13   Olds, D., Henderson, C., Tatelbaum, R., & Chamberlin, R. (1990). Improving the delivery of prenatal care and outcomes of pregnancy: A randomized trial of nurse home visitation. Pediatrics, 77, 16–28.

14   Olds, D., Eckenrode, J., Henderson, C., Kitzman, H., Powers, J., Cole, R., et al. (1997). Long-term effects of home visitation on maternal life course and child abuse and neglect. Journal of American Medical Association, 278, 637–643.