In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cycle of Violence

  • Introduction
  • Child Abuse to Violence
  • Gene by Environment Studies
  • Intergenerational Transmission of Child Maltreatment
  • Experiencing Abuse in Childhood and Perpetrating Partner Violence
  • Animal Studies
  • Resilience
  • Data Sources

Criminology Cycle of Violence
Preeti Chauhan, Cathy Spatz Widom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0150


Several different phenomena are included under the broad concept of the cycle of violence. Originally, the cycle of violence referred to the observation that if a person is physically abused as a child, they will grow up to become a perpetrator of violence in the future. However, the concept has been broadened considerably to include not only whether physically abused children become violent when they grow up, but also whether other types of maltreatment (i.e., sexual abuse and neglect) are related to subsequent violence, whether parents who are maltreated are more likely to maltreat their children, and the extent to which experiencing violence in childhood leads to the perpetration of partner violence. Because of the enormity of this topic, we have restricted this bibliography to experiencing violence or abuse in one’s family of origin and, thus, exclude abuse from other sources, including bullying and witnessing violence. We also exclude the developing literature on potential neurodevelopmental or neurobiological consequences associated with child maltreatment because it is beyond the scope of the present bibliography. In addition, we focus on the perpetration of violence, but acknowledge that in many cases, the literature refers more generally to crime and delinquency. The bibliography begins with some of the major theoretical approaches in the field. Next, we call attention to a number of methodological issues that need to be considered in evaluating the cycle of violence as well as measuring consistencies and inconsistencies in the research. The bibliography then focuses on the research on the cycle of violence (child abuse to subsequent perpetration of violence) and a series of newer papers that examine the contribution of genes to understanding this phenomenon. This section looks at gene (G) by environment (E) interactions because new research has suggested that certain genotypes may moderate (or interact with) adverse childhood experiences, such as child abuse and neglect, and impact the likelihood of subsequent antisocial or violent behavior. We then consider the literature on two related types of cycles of violence—the intergenerational transmission of maltreatment and whether experiencing violence in childhood increases a person’s risk to perpetrate intimate partner violence. We briefly call attention to research with animals that is relevant to these issues and include a section on what has been termed “resilience,” based on the observation that not all children who have histories of abuse become violent offenders. Finally, there is a brief section on major data sources.

Theoretical Approaches

Efforts to explain the intergenerational transmission of violence have focused on various theories, including social learning theory, attachment theory, ecological models, evolutionary theory, strain theory, and genetics. A large literature exists on social learning theories and Tedeschi and Felson 1994 (cited under Social Learning Theories) provides a solid overview of the theory as well as the mechanisms that may promote the intergenerational transmission of violence. Attachment theory has also received extensive attention in the maltreatment literature. Crittenden and Ainsworth 1989 (cited under Attachment Theory) provides an overview of the theory and discuss relevant pathways by which violence is transmitted. The need to examine the causes and consequences of maltreatment through multiple levels of ecology such as individual, family, peer, school, community, and culture is emphasized by multiple authors including in Widom 2000 (cited under Ecological Models). The articles in this section illustrate the complex relationships between the various ecological levels and how they interactively influence maltreatment and violence. Belsky 1993 contributes an evolutionary perspective and provides unique insight into why maltreatment may be reproductively beneficial or detrimental (cited under Evolutionary Theory). Agnew 2012 (cited under Strain Theory) expanded strain theory to include child abuse and neglect, suggesting that the resulting strain from these childhood experiences could result in crime. Moffitt 2005 (cited under Genetics) provides a critical overview of how to examine gene by environment studies and their potential causal role in the cycle of violence. Lastly, the “other theories” section covers social information processing theory and psychodynamic/object relation theories. Readers should be aware that these theories are not mutually exclusive, but rather complement one another, which further highlights the complexity in understanding the cycle of violence.

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