Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Ethnic Differences with Abuse during Pregnancy

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Ethnic Differences with Abuse during Pregnancy

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This research examined what may be the earliest link in the chain of violence, the prenatal and perinatal developmental period, with mothers who experienced violence during their pregnancies. One hundred and sixty-eight mothers reporting abuse and their newborn infants from a sample of 1,226 women recruited in the Boston City Hospital Maternal Health Habits Project were studied. The results revealed that the newborns of Caucasian mothers had an increase in the level of behavioral problems of crying, hyperactivity, central nervous system depression and respiratory distress though not significantly. For Black and Hispanic mothers there were less baby problems with self-reported abuse. Several explanations for these findings are offered.


A number of empirical studies have identified the influence of media violence, drugs and alcohol, the availability of guns, biological, psychological and emotional factors, poverty and a dysfunctional family environment on young people in an effort to discern the origins of violent behaviors. With homicide being the leading cause of death for African-American youths and the second leading cause of death for Hispanic youths (Anderson, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1997) research continues in an attempt to stem the tide of this public health concern. To date, many scholars who investigate youth violence conclude that no theory of the cause of violent behavior exists that can explain every criminal act. The prevailing wisdom is that youth violence is determined by a chain of events and a complex interaction of influences. This research utilized the theoretical perspective that the pathogenesis of violence is molded at a profoundly early age-during prenatal and perinatal development. What was hypothesized was that prenatal experiences of abuse lead to perinatal complications, in the earliest link of the chain of violence, increasing the likelihood of later re-enactments.

Children and Violence

Until there were murders by children, it was almost inconceivable that acts this extreme might begin as psychological disturbances in very early childhood. This view was based on the long-held assumption that the prenatal brain is not physiologically developed well enough to retain harmful experiences. Yet increasingly, clinical evidence demonstrates that complex disorders can and do form at an early age (Farrington, 1991) and that sensory events can be recorded, especially rapid responses to threatening stimuli, by the amygdala bypassing the cortex altogether (LaDoux, 1986). Psychological investigators (Loeber, 1990; Olweus, Block & Radke-Yarrow, 1986; Widom, 1989) point to trauma or adverse experiences as being readily retained in early childhood. Other research on prenatal behavior delineates fetuses' use of their developed senses in utero (Fifer & Moon, 1995; Teicher & Blass, 1977), as they are able to feel pain (Blechschmidt, 1981; Noonan, 1983), and have a rudimentary ability to learn and remember (Bower, 1989; Lecanuet, Fifer, Krasnegor & Smotherman, 1995).

The major question that remains unanswered in the violence literature to date is why only a small number of young people who have been exposed to known risk factors (e.g., early trauma, abuse, rejection, deprivation, violence in the media, availability of guns, etc.) exert violence? Even more perplexing are the children who commit heinous murders who had no prior behaviors indicating a psychopathology.

A Prenatal and Perinatal Theoretical Explanation of Violence

Chamberlain (1999) has described how "prenates show appropriate hyperactivity in response to danger" (p. 37), easily observed by ultrasound technologies. Predictable sequelae following a dangerous, traumatic incident would likely be hyperactivity, hypervigilance or depression (hypoactivity). The link has already been made between hyperactivity and delivery complications to later violence (Kandel & Mednick, 1991; Mungas, 1983). …

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