Patterns of Adjustment Among Children of Battered Women

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:
John H. Grych, Ernest N. Jouriles, Paul R. Swank, Renee McDonald, and William D. Norwood

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, V. 68 (1), 84-94, 2000

What is the purpose of this study?
This study increases understanding of the effects of domestic violence on children's psychological development. Such knowledge enables providers to develop more effective intervention programs for children of battered women. Researchers ask the following questions:
  1. Are there distinct patterns of adjustment among children of battered women?
  2. What factors influence the patterns of adjustment of children who grow up in violent homes?

Research links domestic violence to psychological problems in children. However, conclusions about the specific effects of domestic violence on children's psychological adjustment have sometimes been contradictory between studies. Furthermore, attempts to identify patterns of psychological adjustment unique to children of domestic violence have not been successful until recently. In 1998 researchers Hughes and Luke explored a broad range of children's responses to living with violence. They interviewed children of battered women living in shelters, and looked at the possibility that children with similar profiles and amounts of exposure to violence could be grouped according to patterns of psychological adjustment. Although Hughes and Luke's sample size was small, they observed five distinct patterns of adjustment among the children who participated in the study. Hughes and Luke's effort suggested directions for future research. The current study builds upon the work of Hughes and Luke.

How was this study conducted?
Researchers recruited subjects from among English-speaking residents at six domestic violence shelters in the Houston-Galveston, Texas, area. Those eligible to participate in the research were boys and girls, 8 to 14 years old, whose mothers reported on the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS; Straus: 1979) at least one incident of intimate partner violence in the year prior to the study. Only one child from each family was allowed to take part in the study. Subjects were 228 children. Roughly half were boys, half girls. Most (69%) participated in the study during their first week in the shelter. In 48% of the cases, the abuser was the child's biological father. Ethnicity of subjects was 39% white, 30% African-American, 29% Hispanic and 1% other ethnicity. The average educational level of mothers was 11.5 years, average age 33 years and average annual family income $20,000. Mothers and children each separately completed a survey about how frequently parents' interactions turned violent in the last 12 months. Children appraised their own psychological adjustment and shared more about personal experiences of violence by answering questions on several standardized measures of self-esteem, the degree to which they internalize problems, and amount of violence directed towards them by parents. Mothers answered questions about their children's externalizing behavior problems. Cluster analysis of responses to all measures determined whether distinct patterns of psychological adjustment existed among the children participating in the study. Further analysis explored the relationship between adjustment patterns and subjects' profiles (i.e., sex, race, and amount of violence exposure). What were the study's findings? Patterns of psychological adjustment Researchers found five distinct "clusters" or patterns of psychological adjustment:

1. "No problems reported"(31% of subjects): Responses by these children indicated they were functioning well, and responses were within normal limits for their age.

2. "Multiproblem-externalizing" (19%): These children were characterized by serious, acting-out behaviors. Eighty-six percent had scores on the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1991) that indicated significant conduct disorders, and 9% had scores on measures of internalizing problems that indicated clinically significant depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

3. "Externalizing" (21%): These children were characterized by clinically high levels of acting-out behaviors, 89% of which had significant conduct disorders. However, they had relatively high self-esteem, and none reported interalizing problems.

4. "Mild distress" (18%): Low self-esteem, very few acting-out problems and mild depression and anxiety problems (only 5% in the clinically significant range) characterized these children's reponses.

5. "Multiproblem-internalizing" (11%): These children's responses indicated high levels of depressive symptoms, 65% of whom reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of clinical depression. This group had the lowest self-esteem, and 42% had clinically significant conduct disorders. Effects of violence exposure on psychological adjustment 1. Father's violence significantly affected psychological adjustment of children. a. Children in both "multiproblem" groups reported significantly more father-to-mother violence than children in the other three groups (i.e., "no problems", "externalizing" or "mild distress"). b. Likewise, "multiproblem" groups also reported significantly higher levels of father-to-child violence than children of the other three groups. 2. Mother-to-child violence distinguished children in the "multiproblem-internalizing" group from those in "no problems" and both "externalizing" groups. "Multiproblem-internalizing" children reported significantly more aggression by their mothers.

Effects of children's perceptions and appraisals of violence

Children's sense of threat or self-blame in response to domestic violence distinguished groups from each other.

    1. Children whose responses categorized them as "mild distress" or "multiproblem-internalizing" reported significantly more sense of threat from domestic violence than other children.
    2. Self-blame was significantly higher among children in the "mild distress" , "multiproblem-externalizing" and "multiproblem-internalizing" groups than was reported by children in the "no problem" or "externalizing" groups where self-esteem was highest.

What are clinical implications of this study?

  1. Children's reports of violence better predict psychological adjustment than parents' reports of their children's experiences. Children's reports better reflect their concerns.
  2. In order to understand the impact of domestic violence on children, clinicians should distinguish between mother's and father's behaviors.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, April 2000

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