There is no single cause of violence. Convincing arguments can be made for increased levels of violence being due to disrupted upbringing, situational stress, economic inequality, deprivation of justice, extreme poverty, low wages, unemployment, social isolation, overcrowding and poor housing.  

We accept that all of these are contributory factors. We are also persuaded that violence levels are increased by a culture of violence, absence of moral or spiritual teaching, exposure to violence in the media, and ready availability of firearms. Concerning diet and alcohol, we have reviewed conflicting evidence and not yet formed an opinion. Genetic influences can be shown to play a part for some people, but these are really triggered by environmental factors. 

While accepting that all these factors contribute to violence, it is our view that their impact is dwarfed by the impact of factors relating to the family. Here are WAVE’s main findings from our years of research:

  • A major cause of violence is early life experience in the family. 
  • A principal method of instilling violence is parental discipline practices. 
  • Priority for corrective action should be to improve parenting skills – especially for parents of the very young.

Family Violence 

Levels of violence in a family setting are high. The general public is rightly concerned to protect its children from paedophiles, yet the bulk of sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members. The 1993 British Crime Survey estimated over half a million domestic assaults occurred in Britain in 1991. Browne estimates that 10 percent of elderly people in Britain are subject to abuse and neglect. Forty-two percent of murder or manslaughter cases in Britain involve a domestic dispute and one-third of domestic victims are children. The NSPCC claims that three or four children die per week in the UK at the hands of their parents.

We believe the prime root cause of violent behaviour is early life experience within the family – specifically, experiencing harmful parenting, which can mean neglect, or direct physical violence, but also includes shouting, emotional abuse, and use of violent discipline. It can be perpetrated by parents who mean well, and believe they are doing what is best for their children, but whose interactions with their children unwittingly cause lasting damage to the quality of lives their offspring are able to lead.

Some of you will be familiar with the famous remark of Cambridge University professor of psychological criminology David Farrington, following his study of South London males from the age of 8 to 32: "Anti-social children grow up to become anti-social adults who go on to raise anti-social children". Professor Farrington identified "harsh authoritarian discipline" applied between the ages of 8 and 10 as a significant predictor of adult criminal behaviour. 


Parents Train Violence

We believe that parental behaviour unwittingly 'trains’ children to be violent. Parents model abusive behaviour by using violence to control the child; the child thus learns that violence pays. Children learn the techniques of being violent from their parents and also the moral justification for violence. 

We are familiar with the phrase "just gave him a slap" from work with violent offenders, when they describe incidents in which they have busted the jaws and ribs of people who crossed them.  A great deal of severe child abuse is similarly described as a slap or a tap by abusing parents.  Child abuse is usually the end of a continuum that began with "punishment".  NSPCC reports show that frequent punishments by parents include shaking, throwing, freezing baths, pulling hair, biting, scalding and the Chinese burn.  Three-quarters of babies are hit before they are one-years-old and more than one-third of children are hit with an implement. 

Parents justify this abusive punishment as being "for the child's own good" (if you have not done so already, please read Alice Miller).  Analysis of parents' thought patterns when committing abuse shows that they often have unrealistic expectations, requiring children to show understanding at a level 12 months or more beyond what is appropriate for their age. They also make wrong interpretations – for example, that the child deliberately seeks to annoy. 

The harmful effects of receiving harsh discipline are not limited to future criminal behaviour. Harsh parenting has been associated with mental illness (and parental mental illness was Cohen's fourth ranking major factor associated with the development of antisocial behaviour in children). Men who experienced a violent childhood are more likely to assault their wives, whereas children observing such abuse are more likely to assault their own spouse later in life.

Related content: Digging up the roots of violence