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Attachment Moderates The Relationship Between Child Maltreatment And Dating Violence

Published by Carla Smith Stover, Associate Professor

Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center

These findings are described in the article entitled The moderating role of attachment on the association between childhood maltreatment and adolescent dating violence, recently published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review (Children and Youth Services Review 94 (2018) 679-688). This work was conducted by Carla Smith Stover and Linda C. Mayes from the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, and Mi Jin Choi from Texas State University.

Violence in intimate relationships is a significant public health concern in the United States and around the world. National surveys indicate 35% of adult women report violence in their relationships. There is evidence that violence within relationships can begin in adolescence. Ten percent of males and 20% of females report experiencing dating violence in their relationships.

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Dating violence is defined as violence committed by a person who is or has been in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature with the victim (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016). Dating violence is associated with later intimate and domestic violence and can lead to significant psychosocial and mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms. Understanding the causes and correlates of dating violence can help with the development of intervention and prevention efforts to ensure adolescents are developing healthy dating relationships that can foster later adult intimate relationships.

Childhood maltreatment including physical, sexual, psychological abuse, and neglect have been consistently associated with problems in attachment. According to John Bowlby, attachment is developed with our caretakers (usually our mothers and fathers) in infancy and very early childhood. When children are maltreated, they develop insecure attachments to caregivers whereby they may become anxious about losing close relationships or avoidant of closeness in relationships to avoid being hurt.

How we attach to our caregivers in childhood is associated with how we relate to and attach to our intimate partners later in life. There is some evidence that attachment style is associated with domestic or intimate partner violence. Those who either fear the loss of close relationships and cling to partners or who avoid closeness to protect themselves may be more likely to be either victims or perpetrators of violence in adult relationships. Assessing these patterns in adolescence can assist with intervention development to prevent dating violence and later adult intimate partner violence.

Our study was designed to examine whether the association of child maltreatment and dating violence was moderating by attachment style. Our sample included 150 adolescents (approximately half were males and half were females) aged 15-18 who reported they had started dating. Adolescents self-reported on their lifetime experiences of child maltreatment in early adolescence. Eighteen months later, they reported on their attachment style and the amount of dating violence in their relationships. They reported on how much they were aggressive toward their partner and how much their partners were aggressive toward them. One-third of adolescents reported being the victim of at least one incident of physical violence and just over forty percent were victims of sexual violence in their dating relationships. Just over thirty percent endorsed perpetrating at least one act of physical aggression and slightly more than a third sexual violence toward someone they were dating.

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Our results indicate that childhood maltreatment is associated with both perpetration and victimization in adolescent dating relationships. Avoidant attachment moderated the associated between childhood maltreatment and dating violence victimization. Those adolescents who had been maltreated and had an attachment style where they avoided or were uncomfortable with closeness with others were more likely to report being victimized physically in their dating relationships.

Attachment style did not moderate the association of dating violence and child maltreatment for the perpetration of violence in this sample. There were no gender differences in dating violence victimization or perpetration. At younger ages, aggression by both genders is more common. Prevention of dating violence will be helped by intervening with youth who experience child maltreatment as early as possible. Providing interventions to prevent the development of attachment problems, especially avoidant attachment (which is a result of feeling your needs will not be met by others and you must take care of yourself), may reduce teen violence.

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