The childhood origins of intimate partner violence: The role of toxic stress in perpetuating the intergenerational transmission of violence


Leinberger, Rebecca (2018). The childhood origins of intimate partner violence: The role of toxic stress in perpetuating the intergenerational transmission of violence.


The intergenerational transmission of violence describes a pattern of maltreatment that persists across an individual’s life course and across multiple generations. People who experience violence in their family-of-origin are more likely to perpetrate intimate partner violence (IPV) in adulthood. While there are undoubtedly many factors that contribute to this complex phenomenon, the emerging field of toxic stress may illuminate mechanisms by which violence and abusive behaviors endure. Scientists across disciplines have found that repeated exposure to traumatic adversity early in life can cause a prolonged elevation and dysregulation of the body’s stress response systems, resulting in a lasting legacy of developmental, neurological, behavioral and psychological maladies. The overarching purpose of this dissertation is to investigate the role of toxic stress in perpetuating the intergenerational transmission of violence. Guided by the conceptual model developed and described in the introductory chapter, I have conducted three studies using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) study, a longitudinal and nationally representative sample following American youths through young adulthood. In the first study, I developed a toxic stress response (TSR) index using exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis. The final index contained symptoms of depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and anger. A low, significant chi-square and goodness of fit tests indicated that the model fit the data well (CFI of 0.997, a RMSEA of 0.07, CI 90% [0.045,0.097], and a CD of .90). I then validated the index by correlating TSR scores with toxic stress exposures, such as childhood maltreatment and experiences of community violence. The correlations were mostly significant and all were in the expected direction. In the second study, employing structural equation modeling (SEM), I tested whether toxic stress response, as measured by the scale constructed in Study 1, mediated the relationship between toxic stress exposure (i.e., childhood maltreatment) and IPV perpetration. I tested this hypothesis in a subsample containing 1,000 participants who reported a history of childhood maltreatment and 2,000 participants who reported no such history. I found that childhood maltreatment is partially mediated by TSR. In the third study, I explored how resilience theory could improve our understanding of why some maltreated children grow up to perpetrate IPV while others do not. Supportive, caring relationships with adults appears to be one of the most consistent protective factors associated with resilience in the face of childhood maltreatment. Using multigroup analysis, I tested whether adult care moderated the mediational model tested in the second study. My analyses revealed that adult care had a moderating effect on the relationship between childhood maltreatment and TSR. For individuals who reported less adult care, the relationship between CM and TSR was stronger (b=.27; p<0.001) compared with individuals who reported more adult support (b=.19; p<0.001). These pathways significantly differed from each other across groups with a chi-square of 6.7 (p<.01). This dissertation adds to the existing literature base by: developing a new index of TSR that could help future researchers identify participants suffering adverse reactions from toxic stress exposure; illuminating a pathway by which violence is transmitted intergenerationally; and by identifying a resilience factor that may help break the cycle of violence.


Reference Type


Book Title

Health Behavior and Health Education


Leinberger, Rebecca

Series Author(s)

Zimmerman, Marc

Year Published





University of Michigan

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