longer a child is exposed to violence, the more likely it is that the violence
will have short-term, in addition to immediate and possibly transitory, influences
on the child. Cummings et al. (1981) found that frequent fighting between parents
was associated with children's making repeated attempts at intervening within
the conflict. The most common reactions of children were distress and withdrawal,
however, some children responded with anger and others with affectionate/prosocial
behavior. Children's differential responses to observing violence may mirror differences
in their personality development. Three early patterns of reactions to family
violence can be conceptualized: the child behaving as a victimizer of others (externalizing
reaction), as a victim (internalizing reaction), or resiliency.
Victimizer The research of Grusznski, Brink, and Edleson (1998) and Straus
et al. (1990) indicates that many child witnesses of parental violence become
aggressive and engage in delinquent acts. Sonkin, Martin, and Walker (1995) found
that 24% of adult batterers had, as children, attacked one of their parents. Boys
from violent homes have been found to be highly aggressive with peers and with
other adults. Although sons may initially hate the spousal violence, many come
to direct violence at their mothers, sisters, or girlfriends (Barnett, Pittman,
Ragan, & Salus, 1990). At school they may be unwilling to do schoolwork, rebel
against authority, and fight constantly with peers (Barnett et al., 1990; McKay,
as cited in Jaffe et al., 1990).
How might this victimizing
behavior begin? Children learn the roles and behaviors of their own sex by
observing and interacting with their parents ( Straus et al.). Within the violent
home, children learn that violence is the basis for power and control (Jaffe et
al., 1990) and that inequality of power, with men being more powerful, is acceptable
(Wilson, Cameron, Jaffe, & Wolfe, 1989). Children in these violent homes learn
that women nurture but are weak and victimized (Carlson, 1984) because they are
insignificant, incompetent, or less important than men (Frieze, 1987). Lessons
on intimacy within the violent family may teach that it is acceptable to physically
hurt those you love (Carlson, 1984). Violent parents teach children communication
and problem-solving skills that highlight violence as an appropriate and effective
method for conflict resolution (Wilson et al., 1989) and as the primary mode for
demonstrating dissatisfaction and desire for change (Straus). The greater community
teaches children that it supports violence by doing little or nothing about it
when family violence is reported to community services (Wilson et al., 1989) and
through tacit social support for males' expressions of dominance and control (Walker
& Browne, 1985).
Dodge, Bates, and Pettit (1990) have
found children from violent households to exhibit cognitive deficits in the
processing of social information, including failure to attend to relevant cues,
bias in attributing hostile intentions to others, and lack of competent behavioral
strategies to solve interpersonal problems. This and other research suggests that
the experience of physical harm can lead the child to conceptualize the world
in deviant ways and thus to develop a victimizer identity (Garbarino, 1990).
both boys and girls may begin developing victimizing identities, there
may be a higher prevalence among boys. Within the United States, sex role socialization
encourages the development of different behaviors for males and females, with
males encouraged to be less verbally expressive and more physically aggressive
(Hartnett & Bradley, 1997). In a cross-cultural study, Zammuner (1987) found
that males were more likely than females to become angry in response to provocation
and more likely to engage in physical aggression when aggressive behavior was
viewed as socially acceptable. In addition, boys are more likely than girls to
show angry responses to witnessing interpersonal aggression (E. M. Cummings et
al., 1989). In terms of response styles, Achenbach and Edelbrock have found boys
to present more externalizing problems (impulsivity, aggression) and girls to
present more internalizing problems (anxiety, depression, fear). Similarly, approximately
9% of boys are diagnosed with conduct disorders, in comparison to 2% of girls
(American Psychiatric Association).
The Victim Rather
than becoming victimizers, some children may come to see themselves as powerless
and valueless and thus assume a victim role (Barnett et al.). In response to violence,
some children become withdrawn, clingy, dependent, and socially isolated (Dodge
et at., 1990). How might this begin? A basic role of the family is to provide
safety and security (Minuchin & Fishman). Within the violent home, children
learn that to survive physically, women must focus on how to avoid being punished,
rejected, or physically abused (Berman, 1989). Abused women become hypervigilant
of their male partners in attempts to avoid violence (Walker & Browne, 1985).
In terms of interpersonal relationships, these children might conclude that women
are powerless and it is not safe for them to be independent (Straus et al.) or
for children to be independent either. As children become older and strive for
independence, the batterer may respond with attempts to control them as he has
controlled his wife (Walker, 1984a). When children turn to their mother for nurturance
and safety from a violent father, she may be unable to offer it (Van der Kolk,
1987) proving that she is as incompetent as her partner has indicated she is (Frieze,
1987). In such families, women's personal needs are considered unimportant, and
the needs of others must always come first (Berman, 1989). Problem-solving and
communication strategies in these families suggest that violence is inevitable
and/or an indicator of love (Carlson, 1984; Walker & Browne, 1985) and that
victims are responsible for the violence or must at least tolerate it (Wilson
et al., 1989).
Dodge et al. (1990) hypothesize that internalizing
outcomes may be mediated by attributions of self-blame and expectations that
aggression would not succeed in eliminating negative outcomes. This belief on
the part of the children that aggression will not help protect them may be supported
by their witnessing of their mother fighting back but not succeeding in protecting
herself (Straus & Gelles, 1986). Walker stresses that while men use violent
acts for power and control, women use them in self-defense to stay alive or to
minimize their own injuries. Finally, over time, abused women begin to deny and
minimize the extent of the violence, underestimate the lethality of the situation
(Browne, 1987; Walker & Browne, 1985), and display signs of learned helplessness
(Walker, 1984). These maternal tendencies might prevent their children from establishing
a meaningful context for understanding the abuse (Garbarino, 1990) and may provide,
especially for their daughters, a model of passive and ineffectual problem solving.
These passive tendencies can be reflected in school by low academic achievement,
school phobia, difficulties in concentration, and social isolation (Hughes, 1986).
these factors, sex role socialization encourages girls to be insecure and
dependent and boys to be independent and self-confident (Hartnett & Bradley,
1987). It also encourages them to model the same-sex parent (Barnett et at., 1980),
for girls to respond to provocation by becoming anxious and boys by becoming angry
(Zammuner, 1987); for females to respond with passivity and acceptance to aggression
and domination by males (Walker & Browne, 1985), and for the former to view
their self-esteem in terms of their relationships and their ability to maintain
these relationships (Walker & Browne, 1985). Thus sex role socialization increases
the likelihood that more girls than boys will respond to the violent family situation
by beginning to assume a victim role.
The Resilient Child Resilience
is the most positive route for the child's identity. While resilience has been
defined in many ways, within the context of family violence it might best be defined
as effective coping, where the child makes efforts to restore or maintain internal
or external equilibrium under threatening circumstances (Masten et al., 1990).
What lessons might children learn from their parents' abusive relationship that
could encourage the development of a resilient identity? Some abused women continue
to be nurturing parents (Jaffe et al., 1990), and researchers have underscored
the potency of strong emotional support from a nonabusive adult in aiding resilience
(Egeland, Jacobvitz, & Sroufe, 1988; Kalmuss, 1984; Kaufman & Zigler,
1987; Masten et al., 1990). Garbarino (1990) hypothesizes that the ability of
the mother to provide a strong, nurturing adult role model who can give meaning
to the violent events (for example, that violence is a result of alcohol abuse,
chronic unemployment, or lack of education) might provide a positive cognitive
accommodation to the violent events, thus generating resilience in the child.
Alternatively, while parents involved in marital conflicts may have decreased
parenting skills (Emery), children with natural competencies and feelings of self-worth
can fill in the parenting gaps. Jaffe and associates (1990) report that older
girls may be especially likely to try to protect their younger siblings during
episodes of violence and to offer nurturance at the end of these episodes. From
these supportive, nurturing relationships the child can learn that respect and
love from mothers and younger siblings can be gained through nurturance rather
Children may see their parents' problem-solving
and communication patterns as ineffectual: their fathers explode and their mothers
focus on survival of, rather than escape from, the violence (Walker). Through
relationships with supportive adults and peers outside the family, school-age
children receive concrete evidence that rewarding relationships exist and that
people can be available to them in time of need (Egeland et al., 1988). For teenagers,
who have the capacity for abstract reasoning, these experiences allow them to
imagine and try out relationship patterns that are different from those used by
their parents. Finally, through seeing the negative effects of violence on family
members, children can make conscious decisions that their own future family lives
will be different (Egeland et al., 1988).
Being resilient is
not equivalent to being happy and secure. Resilient children, in
their desire to offer protection and nurturance to their mothers and younger siblings
(Jaffe et al., 1990), may stay at home with the violence when they could leave.
By trying to protect their mothers and younger siblings and to calm their fathers'
anger, they generate cross-generational coalitions that violate the integrity
of both the spouse and child systems. The resilient child is put in the position
of having to grow up too quickly and take on more responsibility within the family
than is developmentally appropriate (Barnett et al). It is the role of the parents
to protect children, not the reverse (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981). However,
despite these difficulties, some children show resilience in terms of functioning
well academically and with peers (Jaffe et al., 1990). Turning to schoolwork and
peers provides an avenue for day-to-day escape and can lay the groundwork for
future life success.
Prevalence Rates Although the
descriptive and empirical research literature on child witnesses indicates the
existence of victimizing, victimlike, and resilient reactions to family violence,
there are no prevalence rates for these reactions based on epidemiological studies.
Most existing studies compare group scores on mothers' reports of child behavior.
The presence of children with elevated scores on internalizing and externalizing
behavior is almost universally reported. There are usually no direct discussions
of resilient reactions to family violence. Rather, resilience is implied by the
fact that some child witnesses do not show elevations on either internalizing
or externalizing scales. Hansen, Marsali, Battering and Family Therapy: A Feminist
Perspective. Sage Publications. Newbery Park, CA. 1993.
Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence &
Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice
- Schechter, S. and Edleson, J. L. (1999). Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence &
Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Reflection Exercise Explanation The
Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances
your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection
Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues.
Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience.
Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education,
occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health,
home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be
approximately 250 words in length. However, since the content of these Personal
Reflection Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they
may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a work in
progress. You will not
be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.
Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section explored short-term effects
of children's witnessing parental violence. Write three case study examples regarding
how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice.
What are three areas in which children from violent homes show a cognitive
deficiency regarding the processing of social information? To select and enter your answer go to Test.