Public policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have only recently begun to understand that not only adults but also children may be affected by exposure to violence, and these professionals are now responding with new initiatives in several domains. Children are exposed to violence in many ways on a daily basis. Major research and some policy and practice responses have been developed in the following four areas of child exposure to (1) war zones, (2) media violence, (3) school and community violence, and (4) intimate partner violence. Several other entries in this encyclopedia expand on these first three forms of exposure. This essay focuses on children’s exposure to intimate partner violence, including how intimate partner violence exposure is defined, what the impact of such exposure is on children, and what protective and risk factors play a role in the degree to which children are affected.
Defining Intimate Partner Violence Exposure
There are a number of issues that Ernest Jouriles and his colleagues suggest should be considered when defining child exposure to adult domestic violence. First, the types of domestic violence to which children are exposed may be defined narrowly as only physically violent incidents or more broadly as including additional forms of abuse such as verbal and emotional abuse. Second, even within the narrower band of physical violence, there is controversy about whether adult domestic violence should be defined as only severe acts of violence such as beatings, a broader group of behaviors such as slaps and shoves and psychological maltreatment, or a pattern of physically abusive acts, as suggested by Susan Osthoff. Finally, despite documented differences in the nature of male-to-female and female-to-male domestic violence, should one and not the other be included in a definition when considering children’s exposure to such events?
Settling on the definition of domestic violence does not settle still other definitional questions that arise. For example, how is exposure itself defined? Is it only direct visual observation of the incident? Should definitions also include hearing the incident, experiencing the events prior to and after the event, or other aspects of exposure?
Research On Intimate Partner Violence Exposure
It has been conservatively estimated that from 10% to 20% of American children are exposed to adult domestic violence every year. National surveys in this country and others also indicate that it is highly likely that the severity, frequency, and chronicity of violence each child experiences vary greatly.
Recent meta-analyses—statistical analyses that synthesize and average effects across studies—have shown that children exposed to domestic violence exhibit significantly more problems than children not so exposed. Researchers have the most information on behavioral and emotional functioning of children exposed to domestic violence. Generally, studies using the Child Behavior Checklist, developed by Thomas Achenbach and Craig Edelbrock, and similar measures have found that children exposed to domestic violence, when compared to nonexposed children, exhibit more aggressive and antisocial (often called externalized behaviors) as well as fearful and inhibited behaviors (internalized behaviors), show lower social competence, and have poorer academic performance. A recent meta-analysis also found that exposed children scored similarly on emotional health measures to children who were physically abused or who were both physically abused and exposed to adult domestic violence.
Another all too likely effect is a child’s own increased use of violence. Social learning theory would suggest that children who are exposed to violence may also learn to use it. Several researchers have examined this link between exposure to violence and subsequent use of violence. For example, some studies have found that recent exposure to violence in the home is significantly associated with a child’s violent behavior in the community. Others have suggested that children’s exposure to adult domestic violence may generate attitudes justifying their own use of violence, and some studies of juvenile offenders have found that believing that aggression would enhance one’s self-image significantly predicted violent offending.
A few studies have also examined longer-term problems reported retrospectively by adults or indicated in archival records. For example, a study of undergraduate students found that exposure to domestic violence as a child was associated with adult reports of depression, trauma-related symptoms, and low self-esteem among women and trauma-related symptoms alone among men. The researchers found that after accounting for the effects of being abused as a child, adult reports of their childhood exposure to domestic violence still accounted for a significant degree of their problems as adults.
Protective Factors In Children’s Lives
Most people would be convinced by now that children exposed to adult domestic violence would all show evidence of greater problems than nonexposed children. In fact, the picture is not so clear. There is a growing research literature on children’s resilience in the face of traumatic events. The surprise in these research findings is that many children exposed to traumatic events show no greater problems than nonexposed peers, leading Ann Masten to label such widespread resilience “ordinary magic.”
Most studies of exposed children compare groups of children who were either exposed or not exposed to adult domestic violence. Study results report group trends and may or may not indicate an individual child’s experience. Sandra Graham-Bermann, a leading researcher in this area, points out that consistent with the general trauma literature many children exposed to domestic violence show no greater problems than children not so exposed, and several studies support this claim. This does not mean that exposure is a positive experience for any child, just that some children seem to have other strengths or protective factors that buffer them from the most negative effects of exposure.
How does one explain these great variations among exposed children? Some of these children may have had greater protective social supports available to them. There are likely a number of protective assets and risk factors that affect the degree to which each child is influenced by violence exposures.
Ann Masten and her colleagues have suggested that as assets in a child’s environment increase, the problems he or she experiences may actually decrease. Protective adults, including the child’s mother, relatives, neighbors and teachers, older siblings, and friends, may all play protective roles in a child’s life. The child’s larger social environment may also play a protective role if extended family members or members of church, sports, or social clubs with which the child is affiliated act to support or aid the child during stressful periods. Harm children experience may also be moderated by how a child interprets or copes with the violence and other risks in his or her environment.
Risk Factors In Children’s Lives
One risk factor that leads to variation in children’s experiences is the great variation in severity, frequency, and chronicity of violence. Research has clearly documented the great variation of violence across families. It is likely that every child will be exposed to different levels of violence over time. Even siblings in the same household may be exposed to differing degrees of violence depending on how much time they spend at home. Increases in violence exposure may pose greater risks for children while decreases may lessen these risks.
A number of additional factors seem to play a role in children’s exposure and interact with each other creating unique outcomes for different children. For example, many children exposed to domestic violence are also exposed to other adverse experiences. A study by Vincent Felitti, Robert Anda, and their colleagues found that increasing exposure to adult domestic violence in a child’s life was associated with increasing levels of other “adverse childhood experiences” such as exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, incarcerated family members, and other forms of abuse or neglect. This finding points to the complexity of exposed children’s lives. Problems associated with exposure have also been found to vary based on the gender and age of a child but not based on his or her race or ethnicity. The longer the period of time since exposure to a violent event also appears to be associated with lessening problems. Finally, parenting has also been identified as a key factor affecting how a child experiences exposure.
What little research there is on violent men shows that they have a direct impact on the parenting practices of women. For example, a study by George Holden and his colleagues found that battered mothers, when compared to other mothers, more often altered their parenting practices in the presence of the abusive male. Mothers reported that this change in parenting was made to minimize the men’s irritability. A recent study of mothers and their children who were residing in shelters revealed that an abusive male’s relationship to a child directly affected the child’s well-being. Violence perpetrated by a biological father or stepfather has been found to have a greater impact on a child than the violence of nonfather figures, such as partners or ex-partners of the mother who played a minimal role in the child’s life.
Our understanding of how children are exposed to intimate partner violence, what impact these exposures have, and how we can help children heal is slowly expanding. It is clear that children are exposed in varying ways and our responses to them should be equally varied.
- Feerick, M. M., & Silverman, G. B. (Eds.). (2006). Children exposed to violence. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
- Graham-Bermann, S. A., & Edleson, J. L. (2001). Domestic violence in the lives of children: The future of research, intervention and social policy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Trickett, P. K., & Schellenbach, C. J. (Eds.). (1998). Violence against children in the family and the community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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