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Interparental Violence—Effects on Children

The Impact Of Exposure

Research suggests that exposed children are, on average, at greater risk for school, social and behavioral problems (see reviews in Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson 1990; Rossman, Hughes, and Rosenberg 2000). Exposure is defined as children's seeing, hearing, or perceiving the effects of physical aggression between their parenting figures, and perhaps should also include the psychological abuse and verbal hostility that often accompany it. Greater frequency and duration of exposure and whether children have also been personally abused are associated with greater child problems. In addition, children's perceptions of the properties of the conflict and associated attributions appear to play a role in their reactions (Cummings and Davies 1996; Grych, Sied, and Fincham 1992; Laumakis, Margolin, and John 1998). Conflicts that are unresolved, involve threats to leave or of physical aggression, are about the child, seem more severe and frequent, and elicit more self-blame are linked to greater distress. Though much work has been done with shelter-resident children who experience additional stresses of relocation, major findings have been replicated with exposed community children.

Children exposed to violence demonstrate emotional and behavioral problems at both ends of the spectrum, including symptoms of internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, misbehavior, impulsivity) more than similar nonexposed children do. Teachers also reported these differences (Sternberg, Lamb, and Dawad-Noursi 1998). Exposed preschoolers and toddlers are thought to be at greater risk due to their greater likelihood of exposure (Fantuzzo et al. 1997), their less well-developed cognitive and emotion regulation skills for coping, and their dependence on the reactions of family members for information about the meaning of the conflict. However, they tend to show lower levels of behavioral problems, more of which are internalizing types of problems. There may be an age-by-gender interaction for older children wherein school-age boys and adolescent girls are showing greater externalizing problems.

Research of the trauma status of exposed children has revealed that 20 to 50 percent of children are diagnosable with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Rossman and Ho 2000). Additional risks come from children's frequent exposure to reminders of marital aggression, as well as ongoing parental violence that is associated with poorer child outcomes a year later (e.g., Rossman 2000).

Research also identifies possible information processing and social cognition problems for exposed children. For example, although cognitive strengths are seen as a protective factor (Masten 2001), this may be problematic for exposed children who perform significantly lower on math and reading achievement tests than similar nonexposed children (Pepler and Moore 1989). Associated with greater exposure history, one study (Medina, Margolin, and Wilcox 2000) found that children scored better on attention, but poorer on delayed recall following the eliciting of emotional arousal by having children listen to tapes of adult conflict. Using a similar conflict tape exposure priming paradigm, Mary O'Brien and Calvin Chin (1998) showed that older school-age children in high-conflict families were more accurately able to recognize aggressive words they had heard previously, but also more likely to misidentify new aggressive words, suggesting a memory bias or sensitization to marital conflict. Similarly, more children from violent families residing in shelters than controls expected taped ambiguous adult and peer interactions to end in aggression, displaying an aggressive bias (Mallah, West, and Rossman 2001) that could constitute a risk for social development.

Social support is often considered a protective factor, yet extant research suggests that social relationships and problem-solving strategies are problematic for exposed children who have fewer social problem-solving strategies (and most of those strategies are aggressive [e.g., Margolin 1998]). Sandra Graham-Bermann and colleagues (1996) found that greater positive relationships in or outside the family were associated with fewer behavior problems for exposed children, whereas Laura McCloskey and colleagues (1995) did not. Thus, the role of social support is unclear.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodInterparental Violence—Effects on Children - The Impact Of Exposure, Effects On Parent-child Relationships, Longer-term Effects, Cultural Diversity