Linking Spouse and Child Abuse

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., Jessica Becker, and Emily E. Mazurak

December 2010

The link between spousal and child abuse is well-established, whether the abuse is physical or mental. There is a consensus that if a woman is abused by her husband, her children are also likely to be abused. Of course, being in a family where the mother is abused is, in itself, traumatic for most children. However, a number of studies show that while spousal abuse increases the likelihood that the children will also be abused, the two kinds of abuse often exist separately.

Emiko Tajima analyzed data from The National Family Violence Survey, which is a representative sample of more than 6,000 households. In each household, either the man or the woman was randomly selected to be interviewed. This allowed the survey to include the perspectives of both men and women. The people who conducted the survey used the Conflict Tactics Scale, which is designed to obtain honest responses to sensitive questions about family violence. Tajima only used the information collected from the 2,733 households where there was a man and a woman either married or living together, who had at least one child under the age of 18.

Three separate types of violence against children were explored: physical abuse, physical punishment and verbal abuse.1 Tajima defined physical abuse as throwing something at the child; kicking, biting or hitting with a fist; beating up; burning or scalding; threatening with a knife or gun; and using a knife or a gun. Physical punishment includes pushing, grabbing, or shoving; slapping or spanking; and hitting or trying to hit with an object. Verbal abuse is insulting or swearing at a child; doing or saying something to spite the child, and threatening to hit or throw something at the child. Four percent of respondents reported that physical child abuse occurred in their household over the past year. A majority of respondents (almost 62%) reported there had been at least one incident of physical punishment in their household in the past year, and 55% of respondents reported verbal child abuse. When Tajima compared these results with reports of wife abuse, he found that the presence of wife abuse increased the likelihood of child abuse by about 70%. He also found that wife abuse more than doubled the risk of a parent physically punishing a child. Lastly, Tajima found that the presence of wife abuse increased the risk of verbal child abuse by 42%.

Tajima found few racial differences: Latinos were least likely to be violent toward their children, but the other racial and ethnic groups did not differ from one another. Tajima was also able to find other important predictors of child abuse other than wife abuse. These included whether the parent had been physically abused as a child and higher stress in the family. Boys were more likely to be abused than girls.

After completing this study, Tajima went on to conduct another study using the same data from The National Family Violence Survey. In this second study, Tajima explored the factors that could put a family at a greater risk of both child abuse and spouse abuse.2 Of the 2,733 two-parent households that were interviewed, 19.4% reported some kind of abuse. In households where abuse was reported, 78% of households said only the wife was being abused, 15% said only the child or children in the household were being abused, and 7% said that both the wife and child were being abused. Husbands that had only completed high school were twice as likely to abuse one or more members of their household, compared to husbands who had some college education. Homes that reported both wife abuse and child abuse were more likely to have abusers that used illegal drugs. Similarly, households where both wives and children were abused reported poorer health—both physical and mental—and more depression compared to households where only the child or the wife abused.

While these findings are interesting, they trigger as many questions as they answer. Are the respondents depressed because of the abuse going on in their household or is the depression causing the husband to behave more violently? Certain kinds of behaviors or backgrounds may go hand-in-hand with violence, but that does not mean that these factors cause violence in the home. While lower education alone is not enough to make a man abuse his spouse and children, it may—especially when accompanied by signs of depression—serve as a warning signal to social service professionals that the family should be monitored or given violence prevention support.

In a study published in Child Abuse & Neglect, Peter Rumm and his colleagues also looked at the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse and neglect in the home, using data from the U.S. Army Medical Command Central Registry. In the Army, as in most of the U.S., reports of abuse depend on doctors and reports to child protective services.

There were 21,643 Army families with children who had been identified as abused.3 The rate of child abuse among families with identified spouse abuse was 32 episodes per 1,000 family years, compared to 7 episodes per 1000 family years for families where no spouse abuse had been reported. (The rate of 1,000 family years equals either 1,000 families for one year, 500 families for two years, etc.) On average, 21 months elapsed between the report of spouse abuse and the report of child abuse.

Although child abuse was more than four times as likely in homes where the spouse was abused, the parent’s military rank and age also predicted both types of abuse. Officers with a higher rank were less likely to abuse their wife and/or child than officers with a lower rank. After adjusting for parent’s military rank and age, families with identified spouse abuse were twice as likely to also abuse a child. This means that some of the apparent impact of spouse abuse on child abuse was actually due to parents’ age and rank. Moreover, spouse abuse did not predict child neglect.

According to a study done by Jen Jen Chang published in Child Abuse & Neglect, there is a link between psychological abuse (a pattern of speaking or acting towards someone that makes the person feel unwanted, worthless, unloved and/or flawed) between parents and psychological and physical abuse of their children.4 In other words, if the parents mistreat each other, it is much more likely that one or both of them will also mistreat their child. Children were most likely to experience psychological abuse in households where both parents were psychologically abusive toward each other. In these households, 28% of children experienced psychological abuse, whereas in households where the spouses reported no such mistreatment of one another, about 5% of children were psychologically abused. The Chang study also found a connection between parents psychologically abusing each other and physical abuse of their children. In households where both parents psychologically abused each other, 18.9% of households also reported the physical abuse of a child. The children who were most likely to be physically abused lived in households where the father or father figure psychologically abused the mother.

All of the above studies indicate that spouse abuse increases the risk of child abuse, both physical and mental. As a result, relatives, neighbors, police, teachers, and others need to be sensitive to this possibility in homes where they know spousal abuse occurs. While there is no one cause for child abuse and we have a long way to go before we can predict it, factors like domestic abuse, both physical and psychological, low parent education, and drug use put a child at an increased risk of abuse.


1. Tajima E. The Relative Importance of Wife Abuse As A Risk Factor For Violence Against Children. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2000, 24(11).

2. Tajima E. Correlates of the Co-Occurrence of Wife Abuse and Child Abuse Among a Representative Sample. Journal of Family Violence. 2004, 19(6)

3. Rumm P, Cummings P, Krauss M, Bell M, Rivara F. Identified Spouse Abuse as a Risk Factor for Child Abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, November 2000, 24

4. Chang JJ, Theodore A, Martin S, Runyan D. Psychological abuse between parents: Associations with child maltreatment from a population-based sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 2008, 32