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Clinical and Research News
Childhood Bullying Correlates With Adult Domestic Violence
Psychiatric News
Volume 47 Number 1 page 12-16

After male bullies leave school, they may turn to bullying their girlfriends and spouses instead of fellow pupils, a new study has found.

The study was headed by Kathryn Falb, a doctoral student in the Harvard School of Public Health, and the results were published in the October 2011 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

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Men who bullied their classmates as children are four times as likely to have engaged in violence against a female partner within the previous year. 

Credit: pjcross/Shutterstock.com

“This is an important study—intuition would predict the findings, but it is very helpful to have confirmation of intuition,” Michael Miller, M.D., editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and a psychiatrist unconnected with the study, told Psychiatric News. “It is useful to know that, in fact, childhood bullying is correlated with later perpetration of domestic violence.”

The cohort included almost 1,500 men, aged 18 to 35, who were seeking services at urban community health centers. One reason why so many men were willing to participate in the study may have been because they were asked to fill out a computer survey form rather than be interviewed face to face, Falb told Psychiatric News.

Survey responses indicated that many of the subjects came from troubled backgrounds—that is, had been exposed to parental interpersonal violence, physical abuse, or sexual abuse as children. Responses also showed that 25 percent had occasionally been a school bully, 16 percent had been frequent school bullies, and 16 percent had perpetrated physical or sexual violence on a female partner within the previous year.

Falb and her colleagues then looked to see whether there was a link between having been a bully in school and perpetrating violence on a female partner within the year prior to the study, while controlling for possible confounders such as age, race, education, childhood sexual or physical abuse, or exposure to parental interpersonal violence.

They found that such a link did exist. Men who had bullied schoolmates once in a while were twice as likely to have engaged in violence against a female partner within the previous year as were men who said they had never bullied their school peers. And men who had admitted bullying frequently in school were four times as likely to have done so as were men who had never bullied in school.

Thus “identification of boys who bully others [in school] may offer an opportunity to intervene on future abusive behaviors, such as intimate partner violence perpetration as adults,” Falb suggested. But how to intervene? “Behaviors such as bullying and intimate partner violence perpetration often share many common causes, such as child-abuse victimization or witnessing parental violence,” she said. “Intervening on these determinants before children display bullying behaviors or intimate partner violence behaviors might be useful for preventing both behaviors,” she speculated. “[Also] interpersonal violence or dating violence prevention activities might be effective if targeted towards boys who bully."

But what are the chances of such interventions really working? “Perhaps they would merely suppress behavior that might emerge later or when grownups aren’t around,” Miller conjectured. “But it is possible that an intervention could help a bully learn self-control or to cultivate empathy, reducing the later risk of aggressive behavior.”

Also, “a helpful direction [for designing such interventions] would be to refine our understanding of the motivations for bullying behavior,” Miller said, although “it would be a difficult thing to study empirically,” he admitted. For example, bullying might be motivated by a desire for power and control over other individuals (as Falb and her colleagues proposed in their paper), or it could be motivated by sadism, rage, sociopathic manipulation, or other possible factors, he said.

An abstract of “School Bullying Perpetration and Other Childhood Risk Factors as Predictors of Adult Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration” is posted at http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/165/10/890.inline-graphic-1.gif

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Men who bullied their classmates as children are four times as likely to have engaged in violence against a female partner within the previous year. 

Credit: pjcross/Shutterstock.com

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