Cognitive and physiological systems linking childhood exposure to family verbal aggression and reactions to conflict in adulthood

Lindsey Susan Aloia, Denise Haunani Solomon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


Verbal aggression is defined as a communication behavior in which a person purposefully uses language to attack the self-concept of another person (Infante, 1987; Renfrew, 1997; Straus, 1979). Verbally aggressive communication is destructive and consequential for recipients of any age (Stemmler & Meinhardt, 1990); however, exposure to verbal aggression, including witnessing or receiving aggressive messages, is especially harmful during formative childhood years. For example, researchers have found that prolonged exposure to interparental conflict during childhood creates a predisposition toward psychological and marital diffculties in later life (Adam et al, 1982; Amato & Keith, 1991). In addition, adult impairments, such as a limited capacity for empathy, the inability to make accurate attributions for thoughts and feelings, and poor social judgment, appear to be adult symptoms of witnessing and/or receiving verbally aggressive messages during childhood (Ornduff et al, 2001). These findings suggest that efforts to understand the effects of childhood exposure to family verbal aggression can shed light on how people experience and manage conflict within adult romantic relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, theory and research linking experiences of verbal aggression in childhood to experiences in adulthood have focused primarily on factors that promote a tendency to communicate aggressively. For example, social learning theory proposes that children develop models of interpersonal relationships by learning from and imitating the behaviors of influential individuals (Bandura, 1977). In other words, children’s exposure to family conflict provides them with scripts that specify when, why, and how to use verbal aggression within situations they may encounter as adults (Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Similarly, the argumentative skills deficiency model highlights how verbal aggression results when children fail to learn verbal skills that can diffuse negatively escalating interactions (Infante et al, 1989). This theory suggests that when children witness escalating exchanges characterized by aggressive communication, rather than reasoned argument, they learn inappropriate responses to disagreement that they use throughout their lives (Infante et al, 1990). Whereas the link between childhood experiences and the tendency to enact verbal aggression is well established, theory and research explaining people’s reactions to verbally aggressive communication is in a more formative stage. In a sense, social learning and skills deficit accounts for being aggressive can also explain people’s reactions as targets of verbal aggression: scripts for conflict and a person’s repertoire of communication skills inform the meanings that an individual attaches to aggression, the threats associated with verbal assault, and reactions to conflict. Whereas these perspectives highlight cognitions in the form of knowledge and skills, we see benefits in considering somewhat more automatic cognitive and physiological processes that are attuned to aggressive behavior. In this chapter, therefore, we turn our attention to cognitive and physiological processes through which childhood experiences influence people’s responses in the face of a romantic partner’s verbal aggression. Our thinking highlights how experiences in early life calibrate adult reactions to the occurrence of aggression in interpersonal interactions. In general, we suggest that individuals who experienced frequent and severe verbal aggression during childhood have decreased responsivity to episodes of conflict in adulthood compared to people who do not report recurrent conflict exposure in childhood. Through the calibration of cognitive processes, people’s childhood experiences of conflict influence how they attend to, make sense of, and respond to aggression in adulthood (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Through the calibration of physiological processes, people who were exposed to persistent aggression during formative years may exhibit attenuated arousal in response to conflict stimuli. In the sections that follow, we begin with an explication of verbal aggression. We then define desensitization and clarify how it encompasses the cognitive and physiological recalibration that occurs as a result of childhood exposure to family verbal aggression. Next, we report data from two studies that illustrate how childhood exposure to family conflict interfaces with cognitive and physiological systems to shape adults’ reactions to verbal aggression from a romantic partner. We conclude this chapter by identifying directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCommunicating Interpersonal Conflict in Close Relationships
Subtitle of host publicationContexts, Challenges, and Opportunities
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781317683810
ISBN (Print)9781138774896
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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