Childhood family violence history and women's risk for intimate partner violence and poor health

Lillian Bensley, Juliet Van Eenwyk, Katrina Wynkoop Simmons
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2003, 25 (1): 38-44

BACKGROUND: There is growing evidence for associations between generations in family violence and between family violence in both childhood and adulthood and women's health. Most studies focus on a subset of family violence (child abuse, witnessing intimate partner violence [IPV] as a child, and/or adult IPV), and few examine possible differences associated with the nature of abusive experiences, such as physical versus sexual abuse.

METHODS: A population-based telephone survey, the 1999 and 2001 Washington State Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, asked a representative sample of 3527 English-speaking, non-institutionalized adult women whether they had been physically or sexually assaulted or witnessed interparental violence in childhood, and whether they had experienced physical assault or emotional abuse from an intimate partner in the past year. The survey also asked about current general health and mental distress in the past month.

RESULTS: The risks associated with childhood family violence experiences varied depending on the nature of those experiences. Women reporting childhood physical abuse or witnessing interparental violence were at a four- to six-fold increase in risk of physical IPV, and women reporting any of the experiences measured were at three- to four-fold increase in risk of partner emotional abuse. In contrast, women reporting childhood sexual abuse only were not at increased risk of physical IPV. Women reporting childhood physical abuse were at increased risk of poor physical health, and women reporting any type of childhood family violence were at increased risk of frequent mental distress. Approximately one third of women reporting poor general health and half of women reporting frequent mental distress also reported at least one of the childhood experiences measured.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings underscore the role of childhood experiences of abuse and of witnessing family violence in women's current risk for IPV, poor physical health, and frequent mental distress.

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