Consider the Children: Research Informing Interventions for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:
Debra J. Pepler, Rose Catallo, and Timothy Moore

Published: Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, V. 3. No. 1 (5), 2000, 37-57

What is the scope of this journal article?
This article briefly summarizes research findings about the consequences of growing up in a violent home. The effects of family violence on children are outlined in terms of externalizing (i.e., acting-out, aggression) and internalizing (i.e., social withdrawal, depression and self-blame) behaviors and overall psychological development. The authors discuss the role social systems could play in protecting or buffering children from the deleterious effects of family violence, and suggest interventions for each system that would address problems of family violence. The systems explored are mother-father, mother-child, father-child, sibling, school, peers and community. Finally, within this context, this article presents a study that evaluates the specific effect of peer counseling on the behavioral, social and emotional adjustment of children exposed to family violence. The Peer Counselling Program of the Women’s Habitat, a shelter for abused women, provided the data for this evaluation. The authors hypothesized that peer counseling would result in:

  1. Significant psychological and behavioral improvements in children who participated in The Peer Counselling Program of the Women’s Habitat - a group treatment.
  2. Even greater improvement among children whose mothers simultaneously participated in a mother’s support group.

The Peer Counselling Program of the Women’s Habitat, Toronto, Canada
This program conducted educational support groups for children who had experienced domestic violence. There were up to 7 children per group and each group ran for ten weeks. Topics covered included: identifying and coping with emotions, especially feelings of anger, guilt and humiliation, addressing issues of uncertainty and personal safety, finding and using social supports, and dealing with divorce, separations and new parental relationships.

How was the evaluation conducted?
From 1990 through 1994, families whose children participated in peer counseling at Women’s Habitat were contacted and asked to participate in an evaluation of the program. Criteria for inclusion in the evaluation were that children attend group sessions and complete at least pre- and post-treatment questionnaires.

Forty-six of 84 children who participated in peer counseling between 1990 and 1994 met criteria and were included in the evaluation. Maternal consent to participate was obtained for each. Participants ranged in age from 6-13 years and consisted of 27 boys and 19 girls. Seventy-five percent of these children lived in single mother homes and had moved at least three times and changed schools at least twice by the time they began peer counseling. Half the children had no contact with their fathers. Sixty-one percent of the mothers were divorced. Family annual income ranged from $10K to $100K. Almost half the mothers had some college education and the rest had left high school before graduation.

The effectiveness of peer counseling to improve psychological adjustment of children exposed to family violence was determined by statistically analyzing participants’ pre- and post-treatment responses to several measures of adjustment. The children in the study completed three questionnaires that assessed attitudes towards family violence, depression and anxiety. Their mothers completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBC; Boyle et al., 1987) This measured mothers’ perceptions of their children’s "behavior problems and social competence".

How effective was group peer counseling at Women’s Habitat for improving the psychological well being of children exposed to family violence?
Significant improvements were found in the following areas:

  1. Children’s depression: Children made significantly more positive responses after peer counseling.
  2. Children’s anxiety: Children had significantly lower self-reported anxiety.
  3. Children’s behavioral adjustment: Mothers noted significantly less hyperactivity and fewer emotional problems.

Findings did not support researchers’ hypothesis that mothers’ participation in simultaneous treatment would affect children’s adjustment.

What were the study’s limitations?
Several aspects of the evaluation study were problematic. The authors of the study imply that uncontrolled differences in administering pre- and post-treatment measures to the children may have affected outcomes, but the nature of these effects is not clear. Likewise, authors suggest that a sample size of 46 children might be too small to obtain significant statistical results in some areas of concern or interest. Although the evaluation of the peer counseling program at Women’s Habitat showed significant before and after treatment differences in terms of psychological adjustment of the children, the study’s lack of a control group makes it impossible to firmly attribute results to the treatment in question. Finally, the high mobility of families who participted in the peer counseling program made follow-up impossible. As a result, the tenacity of improvements gained during peer counseling could not be determined.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, July 7, 2000

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