Children Exposed to Partner Violence

Chapter Summary by
Janis Wolak and David Finkelhor
Chapter summary, as it appears in:
Partner Violence: A Comprehensive Review of 20 Years of Research
Edited by Jana L. Jasinski and Linda M. Williams (1998)
Made available by Sage Publications

Between 11% and 20% of adults remember seeing violent partner incidents when they were young. An average of nine incidents were recalled by adults who remembered witnessing partner violence when they were growing up.

Symptoms of Children Exposed to Partner Violence
Children who observe partner violence cannot be described as having one particular pattern of response to their experience (see Table 3.1). A recent summary of 29 studies of children who have witnessed partner assaults (Kolbo, Blakely, & Engleman, 1996) reports harm in several areas of functioning: behavioral, emotional, social, cognitive, and physical.

Behavioral problems include aggression, cruelty to animals, tantrums, "acting out," immaturity, truancy, delinquency, and attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity (Ascione, in press; Davies, 1991; Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994; Graham-Bermann, 1996c; Hershorn & Rosenbaum, 1985; Hughes & Barad, 1983; Joriles, Murphy, & O'Leary, 1989; McCloskey et al., 1995, Sternberg et al., 1993). Common emotional problems are anxiety, anger, depression, withdrawal, and low self-esteem (Carlson, 1990; Davis & Carlson, 1987; Graham-Bermann, 1996c; Hughes, 1988; Jaffe, Wolfe, Wilson, & Zak, 1986). Social problems are poor social skills, peer rejection, and an inability to empathize with others (Graham-Bermann, 1996c; Strassberg & Dodge, 1992). Cognitive difficulties generally include language lag, developmental delays, and poor school performance (Kerouac, Taggart, Lescop, & Fortin, 1986; Wildin, Williamson, & Wilson, 1991). Physical problems include failure to thrive, difficulty sleeping and eating, regressive behaviors, poor motor skills, and psychosomatic symptoms such as eczema and bed-wetting (Copping, 1996; Jaffe et al., 1990; Layzer, Goodson, & Delange, 1986).

Most of the research cited used various standardized instruments that measure psychological and other problems. Researchers compared scores of children exposed to partner violence with normed scores or with scores of control groups. Most, but not all, of this body of research found that children who witness violence are significantly more likely to have problems in one or more of the five areas cited than children who do not.

These findings do not imply that every child who witnesses partner violence, even frequent and severe violence, will have problems. Many children are able to cope successfully with disturbing events. Moreover, this body of research is relatively recent, and its findings are limited by methodological and other difficulties detailed later in this chapter. At this point, researchers are uncertain whether the problems of these children are attributable to exposure to partner violence alone or to the cumulative effect of exposure and other difficulties prevalent in violent homes.

Table 3.1 Symptoms of Children Exposed to Partner Violence

Behavioral Emotional
Aggression Anxiety
Tantrums Depression
Acting out Withdrawal
Immaturity Low self-esteem
Truancy Anger
Physical Cognitive
Failure to thrive Poor academic performance
Sleeplessness Language lag
Regressive behaviors
Eating disorders
Poor motor skills
Psychosomatic symptoms
Rejection by peers

NOTE: Researchers are uncertain whether these types of problems are attributable to exposure to partner violence alone or to the cumulative effect of exposure and other problems prevalent in violent homes.

Questions about possible exposure to parental and partner violence should be asked of all children being assessed or treated for other problems of mental health, academic, or social nature (e.g., delinquency, sexual abuse, depression, academic difficulties).

  1. All children exposed to parental partner violence should be given a detailed assessment to determine the nature and impact of their exposure.
  2. In encounters with children who have been exposed to partner violence, the possibility of physical and emotional abuse of the child needs to be recognized, along with the potential responsibility for a report to the mandated child abuse and neglect reporting agency. All professionals need to be trained in such assessments and procedures.
  3. All children involved in partner violence crisis situations should have a professional working with them independently who is able to assess them and act on their behalf.
  4. Agencies and professionals should develop and be trained in protocols for providing crisis intervention with child witnesses that take into consideration their needs for safety, confidentiality, and post-traumatic counseling.
  5. Work with child witnesses should take into account developmental level and cultural differences in parenting and family practices.
  6. Professionals working with child witnesses need to coordinate and collaborate energetically with a variety of other professionals involved in these cases, such as shelter workers, police, prosecutors, attorneys, judges, and parents' therapists.
  7. Partner violence implies some disruption of, or compromise to, parenting abilities and resources, and therefore work with adult victims and perpetrators of partner violence needs to focus on developing and maintaining healthy parenting practices.
  8. Professionals working with violent partners and their children should be familiar with the difficult custody issues posed by separation and divorce in such families. Services that provide visitation centers and facilitate exchange of children and communication about child custody issues are needed.
  9. Parent education programs for new parents and others in the community should included material alerting parents to the impact on children of witnessing violence; this is a way of trying to discourage violence from occurring, but also a way of encouraging parents to better protect and get help for children who do get exposed.

General Implications for Public Policy
The widespread prevalence of partner violence and its clear association with negative impacts on children contain an important message for public policy: Screening for exposure should take place much more consistently and universally than is currently the case in every environment where children are screened for problems, including pediatric visits, school counseling programs, emergency rooms, and child welfare investigations. This means that agencies and professionals who screen for spousal abuse should make sure they inquire about children's exposure (Jaffe et al., 1990). Likewise, it means that agencies and professionals who screen for child abuse should also look for exposure to partner violence.

Moreover the realization that children can be traumatized by violence from a variety of possible sources suggests that screening should be as broad as possible and not limited to one or two narrow forms of violence or abuse. In addition to child abuse and parental violence, children are traumatized by exposure to peer and sibling violence, encounter violence at the hands of nonfamily caretakers, and in some communities witness a great deal of violence in their streets and neighborhoods. Discussions are available on the wide range of children's violence exposure (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994), and protocols exist for screening systematically for such exposure (Martinez &Richters, 1993).

Table 3.2 Guidelines for Practitioners

Guidelines for Crisis Intervention

Conduct lethality assessment
Formulate safety plan
Train children in security procedures
Report child abuse if situation warrants
Provide crisis counseling

Guidelines for Noncrisis Situations and General Practice

Screen children for partner violence
Assess children who have been exposed
Recognize possible need for child abuse report
Assign independent worker to children
Consider crisis intervention needs
Be developmentally and culturally appropriate
Coordinate with other professionals
Encourage healthy parenting practices
Be aware of child custody issues
Promote parent education that teaches about the impact of exposure to partner violence

Research and practice concerning child witnesses of partner violence are still in the beginning phases and have yet to achieve the maturity of work that has been done with adult victims. A great deal is now recognized, however, and the clear message is that practitioners need to make concern about such children a central aspect of interventions. One of the most serious challenges is learning how to integrate this concern in a natural and organic way into the work with adult victims and perpetrators. The result is certain to be a major advance in the mitigation of suffering caused by partner violence and a stronger bulwark against its transmission onto future generations.

Ascione, F.R. (in press). Battered women's reports of their partners' and their children's cruelty to animals. Journal of Emotional Abuse.

Carlson, B.E. (1990). Adolescent observers of marital violence. Journal of Family Violence, 5(4), 285-299.

Copping, V.E. (1996). Beyond over- and undercontrol: Behavioral observations of shelter children. Journal of Family Violence, 11(1), 41-57.

Davies, D. (1991). Intervention with male toddlers who have witnessed parental violence. Families in Society, 515-524.

Davis L.V. & Carlson, B.E. (1987). Observation of spousal abuse: What happens to the children? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(3), 278-291.

Dodge, K.A., Pettit, G.S., & Bates, J.E. (1994). Socialization mediators of the relation between socioeconomic status and child conduct problems. Child Development,65, 649-665.

Finkelhor, D. & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). The Victimization of Children. American Psychologist, 49(3).

Graham-Bermann, S.A. (1996c). The social functioning of preschool-age children whose mothers are emotionally and physically abused. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Hershorn, M., & Rosenbaum, A. (1985). Children of marital violence: A closer look at unintended victims. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(2), 260-266.

Hughes, H.M. (1988). Psychological and behavioral correlates of family violence in child witnesses and victims. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 58(1), 77-90.

Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., Wilson, S., & Zak, L. (1986). Similarities in behavioral and social maladjustment among child victims and witnesses to family violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 56(1), 142-146.

Jaffe P.G., Wolfe, D.A., & Wilson, S.K. (1990). Children of battered women. Newbury Park, CA:Sage.

Kerouac, S., Taggart, M.E., Lescop, J., & Fortin, M.F. (1986). Dimensions of health in violent families. Health Care for Women International, 7, 413-426.

Kolbo, J.R., Blakely, E.H., & Engleman, D. (1996). Children who witness domestic violence: A review of empirical literature. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11(2), 281-293.

Martinez, P. & Richters, J.E. (1993). The NIMH community violence project: Children as victims of and witnesses to violence. Psychiatry, 56, 7-21.

Sternberg, K.J., Lamb, M.E., Greenbaum, C., Cicchetti, D., Dawund, S., Cortes, R.M., Krispin, O. & Lorey, F. (1993). Effects of domestic violence on children's behavioral problems and depression. Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 44-52.

Strassberg, Z., & Dodge, K.A. (1992). The longtitudinal relationship between parental conflict strategies and children's sociometric standing in kindergarten. Merril-Palmer Quarterly, 38(4), 477-493.

Wildin, S.R., Williamson, W.D., & Wilson, G.S. (1991). Children of battered women: Developmental and learning profiles. Clinical Pediatrics, 30(5), 299-304.

Feedback Join Us Site Map VAWPrevention Home
  National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center © Copyright 2000
(843) 792-2945/telephone       (843)  792-3388/fax