Interparental Violence—Effects on Children

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Interparental Violence—Effectson Children


Exposure to violence in the home provides a major threat to children's development worldwide where it is estimated that 33 percent of women have been assaulted or abused by a male spouse or family member (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999). As shown in a sampling from different countries, estimates of incidence vary: China, 29 percent (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001b); Chile, 60 percent; Japan, 59 percent (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001h); Peru, 90 percent (Human Rights Watch 2001); South Africa, 25 percent (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001f); United States, 31 percent (Commonwealth Fund 1999); Russia, 81 percent of domestic crimes were against women (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001e); and Canada, 48 percent (Rodgers 1994).

Children's exposure to woman abuse is not assessed in most countries. However, in Australia 23 percent of young people surveyed had witnessed an incident of physical or domestic violence against their mothers or stepmothers (Indermaur 2001). In the United States it is estimated that as many as 10 million children are exposed to violence between their parents each year (Straus 1992), and that slightly more than half of female victims of intimate violence live in households with children under age 12 (U.S. Department of Justice 1998).


The Impact of Exposure

Research suggests that exposed children are, on average, at greater risk for school, social and behavioral problems (see reviews in Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson 1990; Rossman, Hughes, and Rosenberg 2000). Exposure is defined as children's seeing, hearing, or perceiving the effects of physical aggression between their parenting figures, and perhaps should also include the psychological abuse and verbal hostility that often accompany it. Greater frequency and duration of exposure and whether children have also been personally abused are associated with greater child problems. In addition, children's perceptions of the properties of the conflict and associated attributions appear to play a role in their reactions (Cummings and Davies 1996; Grych, Sied, and Fincham 1992; Laumakis, Margolin, and John 1998). Conflicts that are unresolved, involve threats to leave or of physical aggression, are about the child, seem more severe and frequent, and elicit more self-blame are linked to greater distress. Though much work has been done with shelter-resident children who experience additional stresses of relocation, major findings have been replicated with exposed community children.

Children exposed to violence demonstrate emotional and behavioral problems at both ends of the spectrum, including symptoms of internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, misbehavior, impulsivity) more than similar nonexposed children do. Teachers also reported these differences (Sternberg, Lamb, and Dawad-Noursi 1998). Exposed preschoolers and toddlers are thought to be at greater risk due to their greater likelihood of exposure (Fantuzzo et al. 1997), their less well-developed cognitive and emotion regulation skills for coping, and their dependence on the reactions of family members for information about the meaning of the conflict. However, they tend to show lower levels of behavioral problems, more of which are internalizing types of problems. There may be an age-by-gender interaction for older children wherein school-age boys and adolescent girls are showing greater externalizing problems.

Research of the trauma status of exposed children has revealed that 20 to 50 percent of children are diagnosable with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Rossman and Ho 2000). Additional risks come from children's frequent exposure to reminders of marital aggression, as well as ongoing parental violence that is associated with poorer child outcomes a year later (e.g., Rossman 2000).

Research also identifies possible information processing and social cognition problems for exposed children. For example, although cognitive strengths are seen as a protective factor (Masten 2001), this may be problematic for exposed children who perform significantly lower on math and reading achievement tests than similar nonexposed children (Pepler and Moore 1989). Associated with greater exposure history, one study (Medina, Margolin, and Wilcox 2000) found that children scored better on attention, but poorer on delayed recall following the eliciting of emotional arousal by having children listen to tapes of adult conflict. Using a similar conflict tape exposure priming paradigm, Mary O'Brien and Calvin Chin (1998) showed that older school-age children in high-conflict families were more accurately able to recognize aggressive words they had heard previously, but also more likely to misidentify new aggressive words, suggesting a memory bias or sensitization to marital conflict. Similarly, more children from violent families residing in shelters than controls expected taped ambiguous adult and peer interactions to end in aggression, displaying an aggressive bias (Mallah, West, and Rossman 2001) that could constitute a risk for social development.

Social support is often considered a protective factor, yet extant research suggests that social relationships and problem-solving strategies are problematic for exposed children who have fewer social problem-solving strategies (and most of those strategies are aggressive [e.g., Margolin 1998]). Sandra Graham-Bermann and colleagues (1996) found that greater positive relationships in or outside the family were associated with fewer behavior problems for exposed children, whereas Laura McCloskey and colleagues (1995) did not. Thus, the role of social support is unclear.


Effects on Parent-Child Relationships

Parental well-being and parenting practices could constitute protective factors for exposed children. E. Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies (1996) speculate that the negative effects of parental conflict result from challenges to children's sense of emotional security. These seem likely in violent families, because poverty, emotional distress, parenting stress, and negative life events are generally greater for battered than nonbattered mothers (e.g., Holden et al. 1998). Battered mothers report being less emotionally available to their children than do nonbattered mothers (Holden et al. 1998). However, battered mothers do not report greater corporal punishment, but are less proactive in avoiding power struggles (Holden et al. 1998). Battered mothers do report being less consistent in their discipline (Holden and Ritchie 1991), and endorse a mixture of parenting practices that are internally inconsistent (Rossman and Rea 2001), likely being impacted by their partner's violence. Nonetheless, observations of battered mothers' warmth and authority-control were predictive of children's prosocial behaviors (Levendosky and Graham-Bermann 2000), suggesting that warmth and consistency in parenting may act as a protective factor for children.

Longer-Term Effects

Although most studies are of concurrent impact, a few short-term prospective studies have been done. George Holden and colleagues (1998) found some improvement in behavior problems at six months following shelter stay, and Robert Emery (1996) also found improvement at twelve months for children in families where violence ceased. B. B. Robbie Rossman (2000) found violence cessation and modest services (6–12 sessions) were predictive of better child outcome one year later. It appears that violence cessation and intervention may be protective factors for children. Longer-term retrospective studies (e.g., Maker, Kemmelmeier, and Peterson 1998) do suggest that exposure effects may be carried into adult relationships.

One complication in interpreting impact research is that most participants have been from lower-income families, meaning that exposure often covaries with poverty and family stressors. A family's economic distress appears to provide a risk for children, because poverty may make it more likely that parents will be distressed, depressed, or nonsupportive, or provide harsh and inconsistent discipline (e.g., Harnish, Dodge, and Valente 1995).


Cultural Diversity

A further limitation of existing impact research is that it is based on work with Caucasian or mixed ethnicity families where cultural differences are not targeted (although see Sternberg et al. 1993 for Israeli youth). However, children's reactions to parental violence may vary from culture to culture. It is important to note that within a particular cultural background there are also large individual differences among families in acculturation or biculturation (e.g., Dana 1993), and that, for many families of color, the nuclear family and extended family may play a more central role than for Caucasian families. Many factors besides domestic violence, including poverty and immigrant status, affect ethnically diverse women and their families (Kanuha 1997), which makes the picture complex.

Although information specific to interparental violence is lacking, it appears that the way in which children express distress may vary somewhat from culture to culture. To summarize, there may be a tendency for Asian and American-Indian children and Latino girls to express distress in internalizing ways and for African-American children and Latino boys to show greater externalizing behavioral difficulties (e.g., Allen and Majidi-Ahi 1989; Ramirez 1989; Weisz et al. 1993). Nonetheless, the school problems and suicide rates that mark distress across ethnic backgrounds suggest that non-Caucasian children experience adversity, including interparental conflict, at equal if not higher rates than their Caucasian peers.

In other words, exposure to marital conflict and aggression can be traumatic and is associated with poorer academic, behavioral, and social outcomes for many children. More knowledge is needed about underlying mechanisms and risk and protective factors associated with outcomes for exposed children of all nationalities and ethnicities in the short and longer term.


Prevention and Intervention Programs

Fortunately, many professionals worldwide have been working on the development of prevention and intervention programs. These efforts raise several issues: who receives services; what programs are available; what are program goals; and how effective are the programs.

Primary prevention efforts, by definition, assume that all children and adults can benefit from programs designed to reduce domestic violence by promoting skills and understandings that facilitate forming nonviolent relationships. For school age children such programs are often psychoeducational and delivered through the schools. Successful programs have typically included topics such as identification of feelings, anger management, family roles, friendship skills, and self-esteem enhancement (Wolfe and Jaffe 2001). Trauma-oriented treatment may be delivered in individual sessions (e.g., Kerig et al. 2000) through trauma play, systematic desensitization, or cognitive behavioral therapy.

For prevention among high risk families with children below school-age, home-based intervention programs with maternal support and parenting training have been successful in reducing child abuse and improving children's adaptive functioning (e.g., Olds et al. 1997). Some preventive programs have targeted primarily adults and provided community resources designed to reduce family violence by decreasing parental stress and increasing parental skills (e.g., Braden and Hightower 1998).

Multifaceted intervention programs may be the most useful, and typically provide services for exposed children and their battered mothers (see review by Graham-Bermann 2001), and sometimes for abusive fathers (e.g., Peled and Edleson 1995). Many intervention programs for exposed children and mothers have been developed through clinical necessity and delivered through community shelters and domestic violence agencies. These ten- to twelve-week programs are usually offered to small groups (six to nine) of children of approximately the same age, and are intended for mild to moderately distressed children. Research suggests that there is substantial variability in the severity of exposed children's problems, meaning that intervention plans need to include assessment and treatment additional to or preceding children's participation in group programs for the 35 to 50 percent of exposed children with problems in the clinically significant range (Carlson 1996).

Peter Jaffe and his colleagues (1990) and Einat Peled and Diane Davis (1995) have developed programs that serve as prototypes for many existing group programs for children. Group programs for children typically cover the following topics: education about interparental violence, gender role stereotypes, and attributions of responsibility for the violence; emotion identification, expression and management skills, particularly for anger and fear; social skills, social problem-solving and the building of support systems; self-esteem enhancement; safety planning; and understanding children's schemas about others and their wishes for their family.

A new and promising form of intervention for exposed children involves taking services to families in their homes (Rossman, Hughes, and Rosenberg 2000), which facilitates extended service provision. A successful home-based intervention for battered mothers of oppositional defiant or conducted disordered boys, ages four to nine, found that these boys' conduct problems were reduced over eight months of follow-up for families receiving home-based versus only typical services ( Jouriles et al. 2001). Such results are promising and dictate the need for further program delivery and evaluation efforts.

Initial prevention efforts to combat domestic violence are underway in many countries. Some examples include the Project Against Domestic Violence in Cambodia (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001a); Harmony House Limited in Hong Kong (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001c); Jagori in India (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001d); the Russian Association of Crisis Centers for Women (Human Rights Watch World Report 2001) and, the Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training clinic in South Africa (Family Violence Prevention Foundation 2001f). Although these initial efforts are often directed toward education, legislation, public awareness, and the needs of battered women, such programs provide the promise of a brighter future for their children.


See also:Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Conduct Disorder; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Depression: Children and Adolescents; Development: Cognitive; Development: Emotional; Developmental Psychopathology; Divorce: Effects on Children; Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children; Marital Quality; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Spouse Abuse: Prevalence; Spouse Abuse: Theoretical Explanations


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b. b. robbie rossman