Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Violence and the Perpetration of Adolescent Dating Violence: Examining Social Learning and Social Control Processes

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Violence and the Perpetration of Adolescent Dating Violence: Examining Social Learning and Social Control Processes

Article excerpt

This study empirically examines why exposure to family violence and adolescent dating violence are associated. Data are from self-administered questionnaires completed in schools by 1,965 eighthand ninth-grade students. Exposure to family violence was positively associated with dating violence. For both genders, this relationship was mediated by the social-learning-theory-derived variables of acceptance of dating violence and aggressive conflict-response style. For males, the relationship also was mediated by the sociallearning-theory-derived variable of positive outcome expectations and the control-theory-derived variable of belief in the conventional rules of society.

Key Words: adolescent dating violence, family violence, partner violence.

Violence between parents, as well as parental violence against children, are considered types of family violence (Gelles, 1987; O'Leary, 1993). The relationships between exposure to those types of family violence and the use of dating violence have been studied extensively. Although exceptions exist, most studies report a significant positive association (DeMaris, 1990; Gwartney-Gibbs, Stockard, & Bohmer, 1987; Harris, 1996; LanghinrichsenRohling, Neidig, & Thorn, 1995; MacEwen, 1994; Marshall & Rose, 1988; White & Humphrey, 1994; see Sugarman & Hotaling, 1989, for a review of studies conducted before 1989). The mechanisms linking exposure to family violence to the perpetration of dating violence have not been examined in earlier studies. Such research could inform the development of interventions that counteract the negative impact of exposure to family violence.

In this study, we examined potential mediators of the relationship between family violence and the perpetration of dating violence by adolescents. The mediators were derived from two theoretical perspectives: social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) and control theory (Hirschi, 1969). These perspectives describe socialization processes, have been used extensively to explain the development of problem behaviors by adolescents, and vary markedly in theoretical tenets (Benda & DiBlasio, 1991).


Social learning theory posits that aggression is learned by observing the behavior of others and its positive consequences. Because learning is more likely to occur when models of behavior are perceived as having high status. competence, power, and exposure (Bandura, 1977), parents, who typically are viewed in this way by their children, are one of the main sources of learning for children.

According to social learning theory, children who observe parents use violence observe an entire script for that behavior. Children observe not only the violent behavior but also emotional triggers for violence, circumstances of violence, and consequences of violence. These observations are among the factors that influence behavior.

Whether the observed behaviors and associated cognitive patterns are learned depends on both the observed consequences of the behavior and the expected outcome of using the behavior. We generally think of violence as resulting in negative consequences, but because violence is a powerful means of coercion, children who observe family violence may see many functionally positive consequences of using violence. For example, a child who witnesses a father hit a mother may observe the deference shown by the mother toward the father, as well as other outcomes consistent with the father's wishes. Children who are abused may acknowledge the controlling effect that the abuse has on their behavior. In contrast, children who have not observed family violence have not seen functionally positive consequences associated with a family member's violence.

Social learning theory, therefore, suggests that children of violent parents use violence because they have observed more functionally positive than negative consequences of their parents' use of violence and, therefore, have formed positive outcome expectations for using the behavior. …

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