19 May 2022


Exposure of Children to Maltreatment and Development of Crime: A Social Learning Theory Perspective

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Academic level: Master’s

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Three theoretical perspectives; the social-psychological strain, social learning and social control are used in the psychological explanation of the association between maltreatment of children and crime. This paper adopts the social learning model in such an explanation. The work explores evidence of the relationship between child maltreatment and their development of criminal behavior in the future. Studies give evidence that many children in the US are raised in homes with intimate partner violence making it one of the issues of critical concern to the society (Ireland & Smith, 2009). Other interdisciplinary studies indicate that violence in homes puts children at the risk of many problems that may include antisocial behavior. 

The focus of this work, however, is on the development of criminal tendencies for the fact that it is a problem with the most repercussion (Currie & Tekin, 2012). Through an extensive review of literature, this work identifies a correlation between exposing children to forms of maltreatment and developing criminal behavior in the future using the social learning theory. This finding prompts a further consideration for the estimation of the costs of crime to the society because crime is considered as having the most overarching impacts on the society. Therefore, through a cost-benefit analysis drawn from literature, it is identified that having intervention measures to prevent maltreatment is better than waiting to prevent crime after maltreatment. Because the paper notes that being exposed to maltreatment in the past is not an automatic indicator of the development of criminal behaviors in the future, there are other factors that might as well contribute to developing such tendencies such as education, social economic statuses, and exposure to illicit drugs among others. Overall, having initiatives to regulate maltreatment on children is reported as having overlapping benefits of dealing with the additional factors that might contribute to development of criminal behavior. 

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Theoretical Perspective: The Social Learning Theory and Other Models

The role played by family violence in the creation of negative effects is explained through the social learning theory. The theory holds that people learn by way of observing the behaviors of others, their attitudes and outcomes of such behavior ( Ireland & Smith, 2009 ). It also considers that a large portion of human behavior is learned by observation through modeling. Through the observation of others, individuals form ideas of how some behaviors are performed and later on in life, the coded info guides their action ( Ireland & Smith, 2009 ). The model, therefore, explains human behavior through continuous reciprocal interactions among environmental, behavioral and cognitive influences ( Ireland & Smith, 2009 ). 

Four conditions must exist before such modeling occurs. For instance, one of the components is attention generated from such factors as functional value, complexity, prevalence, affective value, distinctiveness and characteristics of an individual (Akers & Jensen, 2011). The next factor is retention in which an individual remembers an aspect which they paid attention to (Akers & Jensen, 2011). Such retention could involve motor rehearsal, symbolic rehearsal, cognitive organization, mental images and symbolic coding among others (Akers & Jensen, 2011). The third factor is reproduction, which involves the imitation of the image in aspects such as self-observation of reproduction and physical capabilities. Lastly, effective modelling requires motivation, which is possession of good reasons to imitate the behavior of others (Akers & Jensen, 2011). Such motivations could stem from the past, promised incentives of such behavior and vicarious reasons. 

It is supposed that the exposure of children to violence teaches them that having control over others by way of violence and coercion is a normal thing and acceptable (Akers & Jensen, 2011). In addition, the children will learn that using such methods makes people attain their goals. Direct aping is supplemented by the internalization of principles used in the guidance of behavior (Akers & Jensen, 2011). The resultant behavior is then applied in general and not specific situations. Therefore, family violence which creates subsequent violence is more likely to be hidden in a general antisocial tendency (Currie & Tekin, 2012). It is reported in Ireland and Smith (2009) that the exposure of children to harsh parenting conditions or them witnessing inter-parental violence has a likely effect on the continuity of the cycle of violence within the family. It is also reported within the same study that learning of violence within the context of the family serves as a strengthening factor for the generalized societal and cultural orientation to coercive behavior and violence. 

Within the family context, social learning has been developed and emphasized in other theories of development that pin point the effect of family in conjunction with additional contexts that children come into contact with (Ireland & Smith, 2009). For example, some of such models are the hostile attribution bias model, the social development theory and the coercion model (Ireland & Smith, 2009). The perspective of the cycle of violence coincides with life course and interactional models of the generation and development of antisocial tendencies (Ireland & Smith, 2009). The life course model, for example, entails trajectories of development that are age-related and subject to turning points and transitions that follow the occurrence of criminogenic and new conditions (Ireland & Smith, 2009). Such a conceptualization offers a conceptual framework for the understanding of both the long and short-term effects associated with risk process with a relationship with antisocial trajectories (Ireland & Smith, 2009). The most critical stage of development for children is adolescence because it is the stage when turbulence sets in in terms of development, which then accelerate the engagement of children in high-risk associations and behavior (Spano, Rivera & Bolland, 2010). Such factors will then reinforce elements that develop antisocial behavior that might include, but not limited to relatively high family violence rates (Spano, Rivera & Bolland, 2010). The segment of early adult course of life is also critical for the fact that turning points and transitions that occur in early adulthood allow more conventional lifestyles even for people with histories of high risk of development of antisocial character. 

The model of social learning has also been described in other studies as having a focus on human capital development in a manner described by economists (Currie & Tekin, 2012). Using this approach, when children see people committing crime, they build up capital as criminals, which might make them both a worse legitimate worker and better criminals. Employing such a perspective, there is also an insight into the model of Social-Psychological Strain. Economists are currently exploring the impact of events in early childhood on the development of non-cognitive and cognitive skills (Currie & Tekin, 2012). There exists evidence to suggest that events happening in early childhood have long-lasting effects on skills at adulthood (Currie & Tekin, 2012). 

Literature Review

The Impact of Maltreatment on Delinquency and Crime 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child maltreatment as the neglect or abuse, which happens to children below the age of 18 years (WHO, 2017). Such maltreatment includes all forms of neglect, sexual abuse, emotional and/or physical ill-treatment, commercial as well as other forms of exploitation that the results in potential or actual harm on the health of the child, their dignity, development and survival in contexts of power, trust or a relationship (WHO, 2017). Exposure to forms of intimate partner violence is also considered as a type of child maltreatment. This work uses violence, abuse, neglect and intimate partner violence interchangeably. WHO also reports that one quarter of all adults confess having undergone forms of abuse while they were children. In addition, for every 5 women and 13 men, one of them reports having undergone sexual abuse while they were children (WHO, 2017). Such statistics create a concern on the need to research the impacts of child maltreatment and methods of controlling such impacts. 

A number of recent studies have explored both the short and long term effects of child maltreatment, but the results have been mixed. For example, while exploring the short-term impacts of maltreatment on children, Spano, Rivera and Bolland, (2006) focused on the exposure of children to intimate partner violence. The study found out that the most frequent problem related to children exposed to intimate partner violence are antisocial behavior and aggression. However, some other studies such as Kolbo et al. (1996) (cited in Currie and Tekin (2012) report cognitive and internalizing problems. Other short-term problems of exposure of children to violence reported in literature include behavioral and externalizing problems (Carlson, 2000). 

The long-term problems is associated with child maltreatment. For instance, in Dube et al. (2003) (cited in Currie and Tekin (2012)), it is posited that adverse childhood events have a correlation with future risks for alcoholism, smoking sexually transmitted infections, multiple sexual partners attempts of suicide and depressed affect. There is also evidence provided in the same study about the association between adverse childhood experiences and the use of illicit drugs in the future. In another study, Hillis et al. (2004) (cited in cited in Currie and Tekin (2012)) gives evidence of the correlation between adverse childhood events and teen pregnancy. 

As much as the associations reported in literature could be provocative, they do not automatically indicate that adverse childhood events are the cause of risky behavior. For instance, if there is an association between adverse childhood events and poverty, then the fact that individuals with adverse childhood events have higher crime involvement rates could be in the actual sense a reflection of a casual association between poverty and crime involvement (Currie & Tekin, 2012). Such a relationship would then show that the influence of adverse childhood events on risky behavior has been estimated with considerable levels of bias (Currie & Tekin, 2012). In addition, Currie & Tekin (2012) report that most researches relate maltreatment with additional forms of household problems instead of attempting to separately note the effect of maltreatment. Another group researches such as Dinwiddie et al. (2000), Kendler et al. (2000) and Nelson et al. (2002) (Cited in Ireland and Smith (2009) and Currie and Tekin, 2012) control for factors of family background such as poverty through the use of twins where one of them is maltreated and the other is not. In the cited studies, such a design is used in the examination of the impact of child sexual abuse on the development of psychiatric problems in the future. In two of the studies except Dinwiddie et al., it is reported that maltreated children have higher chances of suffering negative outcomes than the non-maltreated ones. In the exceptional study, there is a report on no difference between the two sets of children.

The use of twins method provides a compelling method to control family level characteristics that are unobserved and which have the likelihood of being correlated with both crime and maltreatment (Currie & Tekin, 2012). However, Currie & Tekin (2012) still note that the method raises a concern about why one of the twins and not the other is maltreated. The approach could additionally exacerbate the impacts of the error of random measurement that could then produce fixed effects estimates smaller than those utilized by other approaches. Another problem associated with the method could be an underestimation of the impact of maltreatment in the event that both twins were traumatized because of one of them having been a victim of sexual abuse. 

Widom (1998) also conducted one of the most popular researches of the long-term impact of maltreatment on children. In this study, Widom matched a population of 908 children that had substantiated maltreatment cases to controls that have been selected to be alike in aspects such as socioeconomic status, race, sex and age. The same study was unique for the reason that it made distinctions among case of sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse and additionally involved a long-term follow-up on the subjects. The research identified substantial impact of both neglect and abuse on arrest at both juvenile and adult stages of life. For instance, it is reported that being neglected or abused as a child raises the risk of an individual for an arrest as a minor by as much as 53 per cent, raises the likelihood of being arrested as an adult by 38 per cent.

In their study of the effects of child maltreatment on their future, Currie & Tekin (2012) sought to quantify the impacts on important outcomes. Their work, therefore, was focused on the impact of crime. Their finding was that if children are maltreated in their early stages of development, their probability of being engaged in crime in the future roughly doubles up. It is further reported in the same study that the huge size of the impacts indicates that exposing children to forms of maltreatment might create huge externalities in aspects of the costs of crime. It is noteworthy that Currie and Tekin’s work estimates represented an overall maltreatment effect on crime because they lacked controls for probable mediators, which include aspects such as educational attainment. 

Why the Currie and Tekin study found large effects of maltreatment could be explained in the fact that children who are victims of maltreatment start engaging in crime early. This finding is drawn from the Widom (1998) study, which indicated that neglected and abused children have a higher probability of being arrested both as adults and juveniles. Borrowing from the cycle of crime model (social learning theory), it follows that beginning to be involved in crime early might start to develop a child’s professionalism in crime at the expense of the development of legitimate activities like schooling. In such a situation, a child will develop higher tendencies to return to crime compared to other activities as posited in (Spano, Rivera & Bolland, 2006). Another important finding about the effects of maltreatment on children and crime is found in Fagan (2005). In this later study, the researcher found out that subjecting children to forms of maltreatment raises the probability of them being convicted in their juvenile years by close to 2 per cent points. The same piece of scholarly work established the mean value for youthful conviction for children that were maltreated was 1.4 per cent. It means that an effect of such a size implies that maltreating children most importantly doubles their chances of being convicted as juveniles. 

Dankoski et al. (2006) posit that as much as not every victim if maltreatment develops criminal tendencies, it should be acknowledged that maltreatment is a critical determinant of criminal behavior in the future. The estimates give an indication that the impacts of maltreatment are huge relative to additional factors studied in literature spanning the field of economics such as education, gun ownership, introduction of crack cocaine, legalization of abortion and education studied in Willis and Grogger (2000) (cited in Fagan, 2005). 

While attempting to quantify the impact of maltreatment, Currie and Tekin (2012) note that crime resulting from maltreatment costs the society about 6.4 billion USD annually. Others studies cited in Currie and Tekin (2012) such as Cohen (2010) suggest higher estimates of up to 55 billion USD. The difference results from the formula used in such estimations. For example, Currie and Tekin (2012) used estimates related to the cost of crime, which consider the effect on victims in addition to incarceration costs. Therefore, such estimations fail to consider other factors such as the costs of crime avoidance. In this regard, such costs are lower estimates compared to the method used in Cohen (2010) (cited in Currie and Tekin (2012), which is based on the willingness of affected people to pay for the reduction of crime. In this case, such estimates would be higher and almost exaggerated for the fact that individuals are not needed to pay any monies to fill in their willingness to pay for crime reduction. 

The Costs of Preventing Maltreatment v. the Cost of Crime in the Society 

Comparing the estimated figures of the cost of crime induced from maltreatment of children would be interesting considering the costs of attempting to prevent maltreatment. It should be noted that only a few programs of intervention have been found to be effective in literature. One of such programs is the use of randomized trials of home visits by nurses, which begin before birth of children (Olds et al. 2000). Olds et al. report that the use of such a method of prevention of maltreatment on children has the ability of lowering the impacts of substantiated maltreatment cases by as much as 50 per cent. For this reason, such programs have also been found to have positive impacts on the effects of crime as reported in Olds et al. (2000). The findings of such a research attracted much attention in the US, which caused President Obama to include a blueprint that would fund such programs in the Federal spending (Currie & Tekin, 2012). In the budget, the state would spend some 4000 USD on the prevention of maltreatment on maltreatment per child in the US, which totaled to approximately 14 billion USD annually (with the assumption that the US had about 3.5 million children being born per year). For the fact that maltreatment induced crime is only a section of the social costs related to maltreatment, the estimates suggest that programs of home visiting by nurses such as the one proposed in Olds et al. could well pay off themselves even while using conservative cost of crime estimates (Currie & Tekin, 2012). 

The approach to the prevention of maltreatment on children is still drawn from the logic of the social learning theory. In this regard, children will be limited in terms of their exposure to crime in their early stages of development. Because it has been heighted in this work that modelling in the social learning perspective is reliant on four factors, it follows that reversing the trend from maltreatment to non-maltreatment will make all the four factors to produce positive impacts on children in the past. For this reason, their incentive to develop criminal tendencies in the future will be offset by the need to engage in legitimate activities that will go a long way in bettering their lives. Therefore, if the American society was to consider the need for additional incentives offered by initiatives to prevent maltreatment on children such as improving the socioeconomic statues of poor children, then the cost benefit analysis will look admirable. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that preventing crime from happening is more expensive to the society than preventing maltreatment on children. 


This work has explored the impacts of exposure of children to forms of maltreatment in relation to them developing antisocial behavior. It is acknowledged that maltreatment results in a wide range of antisocial behavior, but the paper focused on crime. The reason for this orientation is the fact that literature reports that crime has the most negatively impacting effects on the society especially while considering the socioeconomic perspective of life. Therefore, while exploring this line of research, it is found that maltreatment increases the probability of children developing criminal tendencies in the future (in addition to other forms of antisocial behavior). However, the paper has also identified that it is not automatic that children who are exposed to forms of maltreatment in the past develop into criminals. This finding points at the fact that additional factors modify the chances of children developing into criminals especially in their juvenile stages of development. 

From the social learning theory perspective, it is established that children learn from their environments and model their behavior in four stages: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. Exposing children to harsh treatments, for example, will make the children to gain attention to harsh life, one in which they feel that they should control others harshly. The children will then retain such memory and reproduce them later when they have the motivation to do so. Unfortunately for parents, children start expressing criminogenic behaviors in adolescence, which makes it quite challenging to manage. In relation to this finding, it is noted that exposure of children to violence in their childhood in cases such intimate partner violence, raises their chances of being arrested as juvenile by about twice the probability of them being arrested if they had not been maltreated. 

It is also noted within this paper the economic impact of crime as one of the antisocial results of maltreatment. Two formulae are used in estimating the cost of crime to the society. Without considering the costs of trying to prevent crime from happening, the society stands to lose about 6.4 billion USD annually. On the contrary, inclusion of the costs of crime prevention in the society risks the society about 55 billion USD each year. Comparatively, it is reported that having intervention programs that will reduce the rates of maltreatment on children in the US will produce better results both in the economic perspective and social sphere of life. For example, drawing from the Federal budgetary allocation on home visits by nurses to reduce maltreatment, the state will spend approximately 14 billion US annually and get additional incentives of raising the social economic statuses of power children. With such deductions, therefore, it is found that preventing maltreatment is a better initiative than preventing crime after letting maltreatment happen. 

Because not every child exposed to violence and maltreatment in the past develops criminal behavior, future works need to focus in the factors that might reduce the chances of negative outcomes related to the exposure of children to violence or the processes that buffer or compensate children and adolescents who stay in high risk regions. The family has been identified by researchers as being a probable mediator of the impacts of exposing children to forms of maltreatment. However, only a few attempts have been made to integrate the role of the family with models of development that investigate the extent to which family factors act as mediators of the effect of exposure to maltreatment on children and adolescents in high risk environments. 


Akers, R. L., & Jensen, G. F. (Eds.). (2011).  Social learning theory and the explanation of crime  (Vol. 1). Transaction Publishers.

Carlson, B. E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence research findings and implications for intervention.  Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 1 (4), 321-342.

Currie, J., & Tekin, E. (2012). Understanding the Cycle Childhood Maltreatment and Future Crime. Journal of Human Resources , 47 (2), 509-549.

Dankoski, M. E., Keiley, M. K., Thomas, V., Choice, P., Lloyd, S. A., & Seery, B. L. (2006). Affect Regulation and the Cycle of Violence against Women: New Directions for Understanding the Process. Journal of Family Violence , 21 (5), 327-339.

Fagan, A. (2005). The Relationship between Adolescent Physical Abuse and Criminal Offending: Support for an Enduring and Generalized Cycle of Violence. Journal Of Family Violence , 20 (5), 279-290. 

Ireland, T., & Smith, C. (2009). Living in Partner-violent Families: Developmental Links to Antisocial Behavior and Relationship Violence. Journal of Youth & Adolescence , 38 (3), 323-339. 

Olds, D., Henderson Jr, C. R., Cole, R., Eckenrode, J., Kitzman, H., Luckey, D. ... & Powers, J. (2000). Long-term effects of nurse home visitation on children's criminal and antisocial behavior: 15-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial.  Jama 280 (14), 1238-1244.

Spano, R., Rivera, C., & Bolland, J. (2006). The Impact of Timing of Exposure to Violence on Violent Behavior in a High Poverty Sample of Inner City African American Youth. Journal of Youth & Adolescence , 35 (5), 681-692. 

Spano, R., Rivera, C., & Bolland, J. M. (2010). Are chronic exposure to violence and chronic violent behavior closely related developmental processes during adolescence?.  Criminal Justice and Behavior 37 (10), 1160-1179.

Widom, C. S. (1989). Does violence beget violence? A critical examination of the literature.  Psychological bulletin 106 (1), 3.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2017). Child maltreatment . Retrieved 22 February 2017, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs150/en/

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