Trauma exposure is a consistent correlate of intimate partner aggression (IPA) and parent-to-child aggression (PCA) perpetration, and difficulties with emotions (particularly fear and anger) are hypothesized to underlie these relations. However, the absence of knowledge of the immediate, contextual influence of emotions on aggression renders existing conclusions tenuous. This study illustrates a new method for studying contextual influences on aggressive behavior. Quarterly for 1 year, 94 men and 109 women with children age 2.5 years at study commencement were interviewed to measure the sequence of behaviors during aggressive incidents as well as the intensity of their emotions immediately prior to initiation of aggression. Within aggressive incidents, the number of acts of men's PCA was predicted by men's greater fear, anger, and trauma exposure, and the positive association between men's trauma exposure and PCA perpetration was especially strong under conditions of high fear and anger. In contrast, men's IPA was predicted by greater fear and anger, but not trauma exposure. Men with low trauma exposure engaged in more IPA under conditions of high fear; among men with high trauma exposure, fear inhibited their IPA persistence. Trauma exposure and fear interacted in the same manner to predict women's IPA, but many other findings among men did not generalize to women's aggression. This study illuminates the utility of simultaneously examining aggression across genders and family dyads, and serves as a foundation for refining theories of trauma and family aggression to account for emotion as a factor that can both motivate and inhibit aggression.
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