Social-cognitive mechanisms in the cycle of violence: Cognitive and affective theory of mind, and externalizing psychopathology in children and adolescents



Children who are victims of interpersonal violence have a markedly elevated risk of engaging in aggressive behavior and perpetrating violence in adolescence and adulthood. Although alterations in social information processing have long been understood as a core mechanism underlying the link between violence exposure and externalizing behavior, scant research has examined more basic social cognition abilities that might underlie this association. To that end, this study examined the associations of interpersonal violence exposure with cognitive and affective theory of mind (ToM), core social-cognitive processes that underlie many aspects of social information processing. In addition, we evaluated whether difficulties with ToM were associated with externalizing psychopathology. Data were collected in a community-based sample of 246 children and adolescents aged 8–16 who had a high concentration of exposure to interpersonal violence. Violence exposure was associated with lower accuracy during cognitive and affective ToM, and the associations persisted after adjusting for co-occurring forms of adversity characterized by deprivation, including poverty and emotional neglect. Poor ToM performance, in turn, was associated with externalizing behaviors. These findings shed light on novel pathways that increase risk for aggression in children who have experienced violence.

Publisher's Version

Last updated on 07/27/2020