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Problems Associated With Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence

Problems Associated With Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence

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Problems Associated with Children’s Witnessing of Domestic Violence (April 1997) (Rev. April 1999)Page 1 of 8
*The production and dissemination of this publication was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number U1V/CCU324010-02 fromthe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarilyrepresent the official views of the CDC, VAWnet, or the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
 
Applied Research Forum
National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women
Children who witness violence between adults intheir homes have become more visible in the spotlightof public attention. The purpose of this document is tofurther an understanding of the current literature onthe effects of witnessing adult domestic violence onthe social and physical development of children. Outof 84 studies reporting on children’s witnessing of do-mestic violence originally identified, 31 studies metcriteria of rigorous research (see Edleson, 1999), with18 of them comparing children who witnessed adultdomestic violence to other groups of children, 12 oth-ers using multiple regression procedures to comparesubjects along a continuum of violence exposure orby demographic characteristics, and one study apply-ing qualitative research methods. The findings of these31 studies can be divided into three major themes: (1)the childhood problems associated with witnessingdomestic violence; (2) the moderating factors presentin a child’s life that appear to increase or decreasethese problems; and (3) an evaluation of the researchmethods used in the studies reviewed.
Children’s Problems Associated withWitnessing Violence
Reviewed studies report a series of childhood prob-lems statistically associated with a child’s witnessingdomestic violence. These problems can be groupedinto the three main categories presented in more detailbelow: (1) behavioral and emotional; (2) cognitive func-tioning and attitudes; and (3) longer-term.
 Behavioral and emotional problems
The area in which there is probably the greatestamount of information on problems associated withwitnessing violence is in the area of children’s behav-ioral and emotional functioning.Generally, studies us-ing the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach& Edelbrock, 1983) and similar measures have foundchild witnesses of domestic violence to exhibit moreaggressive and antisocial (often called “externalized”behaviors) as well as fearful and inhibited behaviors(“internalized” behaviors), and to show lower socialcompetence than other children. Children who wit-nessed violence were also found to show more anxi-ety, self-esteem, depression, anger, and temperamentproblems than children who did not witness violenceat home. Children from homes where their motherswere being abused have shown less skill in understand-ing how others feel and examining situations from oth-ers’ perspectives when compared to children from non-violent households. Peer relationships, autonomy, self-control, and overall competence were also reportedsignificantly lower among boys who had experiencedserious physical violence and been exposed to the useof weapons between adults living in their homes.Overall, these studies indicate a consistent findingthat child witnesses of domestic violence exhibit a hostof behavioral and emotional problems. A few studieshave reported finding no differences on some of thesemeasures but these same studies found significant dif-ferences on other measures.Another aspect of the effects on children is theirown use of violence. Social learning theory wouldsuggest that children who witness violence may alsolearn to use it. Several researchers have attempted tolook at this link between exposure to violence andsubsequent use of it. Some support for this hypoth-esis has been found. For example, Singer et al. (1998)studied 2,245 children and teenagers and found that
Problems Associated withChildren’s Witnessing of Domestic Violence
Jeffrey L. Edleson
 
 
VAWnet Applied Research Forum
Problems Associated with Children’s Witnessing of Domestic Violence (Rev. April 1999) Page 2 of 8VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women
www.vawnet.org 
recent exposure to violence in the home was a signifi-cant factor in predicting a child’s violent behavior.
Cognitive functioning and attitudes
A number of studies have measured the associa-tion between cognitive development problems and wit-nessing domestic violence. While academic abilitieswere not found to differ between witnesses and otherchildren (Mathias et al., 1995), another study foundincreased violence exposure associated with lower cog-nitive functioning (Rossman, 1998). One of the mostdirect consequences of witnessing violence may bethe attitudes a child develops concerning the use of violence and conflict resolution. Jaffe, Wilson andWolfe (1986) suggest that children’s exposure to adultdomestic violence may generate attitudes justifying theirown use of violence. Spaccarelli, Coatsworth andBowden’s (1995) findings support this association byshowing that adolescent boys incarcerated for violentcrimes who had been exposed to family violence be-lieved more than others that “acting aggressively en-hances one’s reputation or self-image” (p. 173). Be-lieving that aggression would enhance their self-imagesignificantly predicted violent offending. Boys and girlsappear to differ in what they learn from these experi-ences. Carlson (1991) found that boys who witnesseddomestic abuse were significantly more likely to ap-prove of violence than were girls who had also wit-nessed it.
 Longer-term problems
Most studies reviewed above have examined childproblems associated with recent witnessing of domesticviolence. A number of studies have mentioned muchlonger-term problems reported retrospectively byadults or indicated in archival records. For example,Silvern et al.’s (1995) study of 550 undergraduate stu-dents found that witnessing violence as a child wasassociated with adult reports of depression, trauma-related symptoms and low self-esteem among womenand trauma-related symptoms alone among men. Wit-nessing violence appeared to be independent of thevariance accounted for by the existence of parentalalcohol abuse and divorce. In the same vein, Henninget al. (1996) found that among 123 adult women whohad witnessed domestic violence as a child greaterdistress and lower social adjustment existed whencompared to 494 non-witnesses. These findings per-sisted even after accounting for the effects of witness-ing parental verbal conflict, being abused as a child,and level of reported parental caring.
Factors Influencing the Degree of ProblemsAssociated with Witnessing Violence
Several factors appear to moderate the degree towhich a child is affected by witnessing violence. Aswill be seen below, a number of these factors alsoseem to interact with each other creating unique out-comes for different children.
 Abused and witnessing children
Hughes, Parkinson and Vargo (1989) have sug-gested that both witnessing abuse and also beingabused is a “double whammy” for children. Their studycompared children who were both abused and hadwitnessed violence to children who had only witnessedviolence and to others who had been exposed to nei-ther type of violence. They found that children whowere both abused and witnesses exhibited the mostproblem behaviors, the witness-only group showedmoderate problem symptoms and the comparisongroup the least. This same pattern appears in series of other studies. Children seem to agree. In one studythey indicated that the experience of being abused orboth abused and a witness is more negative than wit-nessing adult domestic violence alone (McClosky,Figueredo & Koss, 1995).The combination of being abused and witnessingviolence appears to be associated with more seriousproblems for children than witnessing violence alone.Silvern, et al. (1995) found, however, that after ac-counting for the effects of being abused, adult reportsof their childhood witnessing of interparental violencestill accounted for a significant degree of their prob-lems as children. Silvern and her colleagues cautionthat witnessing domestic violence may result in trau-matic effects on children that are distinct from the ef-fects of child abuse.
Child characteristics
Some findings point to different factors for boys
 
 
VAWnet Applied Research Forum
Problems Associated with Children’s Witnessing of Domestic Violence (Rev. April 1999) Page 3 of 8VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women
www.vawnet.org 
and girls that are associated with witnessing violence.In general, boys have been shown to exhibit more fre-quent problems and ones that are categorized as ex-ternal, such as hostility and aggression, while girls gen-erally show evidence of more internalized problems,such as depression and somatic complaints (Carlson,1991; Stagg, Wills & Howell, 1989). There are alsofindings that dissent from this general trend by show-ing that girls, especially as they get older, also exhibitmore aggressive behaviors (for example, Spaccarelli,et al., 1994).Children of different ages also appear to exhibitdiffering responses associated with witnessing violence.Children in preschool were reported by mothers toexhibit more problems than other age groups (Hughes,1988).Few studies have found differences based on raceand ethnicity. O’Keefe’s (1994) study of white, Latino,and African-American families of battered womenfound that all the children were viewed by their moth-ers as having serious emotional and behavioral prob-lems. The only difference found between the groupswas on social competence; African-American moth-ers rated their children more competent when com-pared to other mothers’ ratings of their own children.
Time since violent event
The longer the period of time since exposure to aviolent event the fewer effects a child experiences. Forexample, Wolfe, Zak, Wilson and Jaffe (1986) foundmore social problems among children residing in shel-ters than among children who had at one time in thepast been resident in a shelter. The effect of the imme-diate turmoil may temporarily escalate child problemsas observed in a shelter setting.
 Parent-child relationship factors
A number of authors have discussed a child’s
rela-tionship to adult males
in the home as a key factor.Peled (1996) suggests that children’s relationships withtheir battering fathers were confusing, with childrenexpressing both affection for their fathers and resent-ment, pain and disappointment over his violent behav-ior.Children’s
relationships to their mothers
havealso been identified as a key factor in how childrenare affected by witnessing domestic violence. Somehave conjectured that a mother’s mental health wouldnegatively affect a child’s experience of violence butthe data are conflicting. Wolfe, Jaffe, Wilson and Zak (1985) found that maternal stress statistically ac-counted for a large amount of child behavior prob-lems. Another study of child witnesses of violence,however, found that mothers’ mental health did notaffect a child’s response to violence in the home(McClosky et al., 1995).
Family support 
and
children’s perceptions of their parental relationships
have also been identi-fied as key parent-child variables. For example,Durant et al. (1994) found home environments to beimportant among the 225 urban black adolescents theystudied. Adolescents exposed to community and do-mestic violence appeared to cope better if they livedin more stable and socially connected households.
Research Methods Used to StudyChild Witnessing
Interpreting this literature raises several problemsbased on the research methodologies applied. Theseinclude problems with definitions, samples, sources of information, measures, and research designs. Each isreviewed below. While together these flaws raise se-rious questions about this body of literature, theseproblems should not cause us to dismiss findings thatare consistently replicated across different studies us-ing different methods and samples.
 Definitions
A significant problem in this body of literature isthat many researchers have failed to differentiateabused children from those who are not themselvesabused but who witness family violence. For example,Kolbo (1996) notes that of the 60 child witnesses hestudied at a non-shelter domestic violence programall but two were also targets of violence. Some au-thors do not even identify the degree to which the chil-dren studied are both abused and witnessing violence.Rather, they sometimes present their data as repre-sentative of children who only witness violence. As

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