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David Baxter PhD

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Violent Marriages May Make Violent Children
July 2, 2004
by Jennifer Warner, WebMD Medical News

Violence at Home Linked to Fire Setting and Animal Cruelty by Kids

Children of violent marriages may be more than twice as likely to set fires intentionally or be cruel to animals than those from nonviolent homes, according to new research.

The study shows that problems in the family, especially violent behavior among father figures, significantly increase the risk of fire setting and animal cruelty in children, and these behaviors set the stage for later adolescent delinquency.

Researchers say childhood fire setting and animal cruelty may be linked to childhood psychological problems such as ADHD or conduct disorder, which may lead to later chronic criminal behavior, but few studies have looked at the relationship between these behaviors and family risk factors.

This study suggests that the relationship between fire setting and animal cruelty and juvenile delinquency is potentially strong, and any sign of these behaviors should be taken seriously and addressed at an early age.

Family Factors Tied to Fire Setting, Animal Cruelty
In the study, researchers followed a group of about 300 battered women and their children for 10 years and asked them periodically about family life and any problem behavior in their children.

The results appear in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

The study showed that children from homes with violent marriages were 2.4 times more likely to set fires than those residing in nonviolent homes. Children from homes where the mother's partner harmed pets or drank large quantities of alcohol were also more likely to engage in fire-setting behavior.

In addition, researchers found that children from violent homes were 2.3 times more likely to be cruel to animals, and harsh parenting from either parent also increased the risk of animal cruelty.

Over time, the study showed that children who set fires were nearly four times more likely than non-fire setters to be referred to juvenile court in adolescence, and they were nearly five times as likely be arrested for a violent crime.

The researchers did not find a relationship between childhood cruelty to animals and a referral to juvenile court for an offense. However, animal abusers were twice as likely to commit a violent offense such as assault or possession of a weapon.

The researchers show that a diagnosis of conduct disorder was more than six times higher in children who set fires and more than five times higher in children who abuse animals.

"These findings converge with those from other studies generally linking family dysfunction and childhood conduct disorders," write researcher Kimberly D. Becker, PhD, of the University of Hawaii, and colleagues. "An intriguing finding is that most of the significant family variables were associated with partner behavior.

"Future research should investigate the mechanisms by which a violent antisocial man in the home contributes to a child's firesetting and animal cruelty," they write.

Source: Becker, K. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, July 2004; vol 43: pp 905-912.
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