Childhood abuse raises the odds of facing violence later

Abuse when we're young seems to set the scene for being subject to violence when we're older. New research shows the association.

Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic? Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill or suicidal? Did a parent or adult in your home ever swear at you, insult you, or put you down?

A University of Auckland study explores the association between experiencing adverse childhood events and being subjected to violence in later life.

Emotional abuse at home as a child means you’re nearly three times more likely to experience violence from an intimate partner in later life, the research shows.

Experiencing just one adverse event in childhood – as half of the population does – is associated with increased odds of being subject to violence later.

The research, published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, analysed the responses of nearly 2,900 people who took part in New Zealand’s 2019 Family Violence Survey.

Exposure to adverse childhood events can contribute to toxic stress which affects brain development

“It’s crucial to intervene in childhood adversity, since the effects can be multiplied over a lifetime, exacerbating social and economic inequalities,” says Associate Professor Janet Fanslow, of the School of Population Health in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

International studies have shown links between adverse childhood events and adult experiences of violence, along with worse health for people exposed to multiple adverse events.

Exposure to adverse childhood events and other social determinants of health can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress), which affects brain development (influencing, for example, attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress). Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child may lead to people imitating or tolerating those behaviours.

“We need to invest in strategies that support and sustain the development of safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families to help all children reach their full potential,” says Dr Fanslow.

In the New Zealand study, the figures were worse for Māori, with almost 8 out of 10 Māori adults reporting having experienced at least one adverse childhood experience.

One out of nine reported at least four adverse childhood experiences before the age of 18 – a cumulative toll associated with six-times higher risk of experiencing intimate partner violence and seven-times higher risk of experiencing non-partner violence.

Overall, those who were younger, identified as Māori, unemployed, lived in the most deprived areas, and those who were food insecure reported significantly higher exposure to adverse childhood events.

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