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Keywords:

  • Coercion theory;
  • adolescence;
  • family processes;
  • peer processes;
  • violent behavior

Background:  Aggression is one of the more stable characteristics of child and adolescent development, and violent behavior in early adulthood is often foreshadowed by aggressive behavior in childhood and early adolescence. Considerable evidence has linked coercive family interactions to aggressive behavior in childhood, but less research has been conducted on the joint role of family and peer interaction in the escalation of aggression to violence in adulthood.

Methods:  We coded family interactions at age 12–13 and friendship interaction at age 16–17 in a multiethnic sample of youth and families. Violence in young adulthood (age 22–23) was measured using self-report, criminal records, and parent report. We tested the hypothesis that a process of ‘coercive joining’ in friendship interactions mediated the relationship between coercive family interactions and serious violence.

Results:  We found that observed coercive joining in friendships at age 16–17 predicted early-adulthood violent behavior over and above an established tendency toward antisocial behavior. We also found that observed coercive family interactions at age 12 predicted early-adulthood violence, and that coercive joining with friends fully mediated this link.

Conclusions:  These results significantly extend coercion theory by suggesting that coercive joining in the context of peer groups is an additional mechanism by which coercive processes in the family are extended and amplified to violent behavior in early adulthood. Our findings suggest the importance of addressing both individual interpersonal skills and self-organizing peer groups when intervening to prevent violent behavior.