The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Aggression

Children who experience abuse, family dysfunction, and/or neglect, have a higher risk of developing health problems such as drug addiction, depression, obesity, and heart disease in adulthood. This notion is widely accepted, and has been proven in a series of studies that are funded by the Kaiser Permanente and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Kaiser and CDC project have collected a large database of the life histories and health of middle class residents that live in San Diego, California.

A San Diego psychologist has established that project’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey to link these negative childhood experiences with adult aggression and criminal activity, including violence, stalking, sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence. In fact, the study found that the correlation is additive. The more types of difficulties a person undergoes in childhood, the higher the likelihood of engaging in criminal aggression as an adult.

The men in the study who were referred to outpatient treatment following their convictions for sexual offending, domestic violence, nonsexual child abuse, or stalking, reported about four times as many distressful childhood events compared to men in the general population. The men that were convicted of child abuse and sex offenses were more likely to report being sexually abused as children.

The link between the early damage and the later aggression explains why treatment programs that focus mainly on criminal acts are not as effective as they can be (Reavis, 2013). “To reduce criminal behavior one must go back to the past in treatment, as Freud admonished us nearly 100 years ago,” wrote Reavis in a Spring 2013 issue of The Permanente Journal. “Fortunately, evidence exists in support of both attachment based interventions designed to normalize brain functioning and in the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment (Reavis, 2013).

So why is there a link between aggression and abuse? The combined experiences of neglect and abuse disrupt the child’s ability to regulate his emotions and to form secure attachments to others (Reavis, 2013). Therefore, men that were abused as children tend to either avoid intimacy completely, or are at risk to become violent in their intimate relationships, this is due to a “bleeding out” of their suppressed inner rage (Reavis, 2013). Not only should treatment for offenders focus on healing their neurobiological wounds, but the research also points to the need for more early childhood interventions in order to stop child abuse before its victims grow up to victimize others.


Reavis, J. A., PsyD, Looman, J., PhD, Franco, K. A., & Rojas, B. (2013, March). Adverse childhood experiences and adult criminality: How long must we live before we possess our own lives? Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar