Boys Who Bully May Be More Likely to Become Abusive Men

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Schoolyard bullies may be more likely to perpetrate physical or sexual abuse against their wives or partners when they grow up, according to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine.

The study found that people who reported being frequent bullies as children were nearly four times as likely to have engaged in violent behavior toward their intimate partner within the previous year, compared with people who said they had never bullied other students during childhood.

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The study also found some evidence that the victims of bullies were more likely to be violent with a partner or spouse, compared with their nonbullied peers.

The study involved a survey of 1,491 men aged 18 to 35 at three community health centers in Boston. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health asked the men about their histories of bullying and intimate partner violence and their own exposure to abuse as children. Overall, 16% of men reported having acted violently toward a romantic partner in the past year. Among these men, 38% reported having been frequent schoolyard bullies and 26% reported being infrequent bullies. (Overall, the researchers found that 16% had been frequent bullies, 25% were infrequent bullies.)

Both frequent and infrequent bullies were significantly more likely to also report intimate partner violence, compared with nonbullies. But that was not the only factor in the cycle of abuse: survey respondents who said they had witnessed abuse between their parents or violence in the community, or had been bullied themselves as kids also tended to be more likely to admit to abusing their partners in adulthood; however, when researchers adjusted for factors like age, race and education, that association was no longer significant. Still, it remains noteworthy because other research has shown similar links between victimization and later violence.

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“These findings suggest that individuals who are likely to perpetrate abusive behaviors against others may do so across childhood and into adulthood,” wrote lead author, Kathryn L. Falb and colleagues. “Future research is needed to discern the mechanisms and underlying root causes of abusive behavior, such as power and control, as a means to prevent violence perpetration.”