Study Demonstrates Links Between Children’s Exposure to Partner Violence and Emotional and Behavioural Issues in School

Findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence indicate that girls who witness intimate partner violence (IPV) are more likely to internalize their feelings, whereas boys are more likely to act out aggressively.

In a recently published research paper, Dr. Megan R. Holmes and her team from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, present the results of their study on Lasting Effect of Intimate Partner Exposure During Preschool: Cross-Lagged Analyses of Aggressive Behavior and Prosocial Skills.

The study used a sample of 1125 children drawn from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (SSCAW-I) dataset between ages 3-4 and 5-7. The study results indicate that aggressive behaviour and prosocial skills are stable across time. The study results also indicate gender differences: exposure to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) was associated at age 5-7 with “prosocial skills deficits for girls but not boys”, and, conversely, “a cross-domain relation existed between aggressive behavior at age 3-4 and prosocial skill deficits at age 5-7 for boys but not girls”.

The researchers conclude that: “These findings support that behavioral problems demonstrated later in childhood emerge from earlier adverse developmental experiences and that difficulties in one domain may spill over into other developmental domains. To avert this maladaptive process emerging from IPV, interventions to reduce violence between parents may reduce aggressive behavior and prosocial skills deficits in children. “

Their recommendations are that, following IPV exposure, “interventions to decrease family violence and promote competence in children would contribute to diverting children from maladaptive developmental outcomes” The findings of the study also suggest “that gender may be in important factor to consider when designing and implementing interventions. Boys who are IPV-exposed at an early age may require greater attention to developing prosocial skills, while girls may require this attention if exposed later in childhood.”

This research follows Dr. Holmes’ earlier findings covered in her March 2013 article in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry that “Children who were exposed to more frequent early IPV did not have significantly different aggressive behavior problems initially than children who were never exposed. However, over time, the more frequently children were exposed between birth and 3 years, the more aggressive behavior problems were exhibited by age eight. Results indicate a long-term negative behavioral effect on children who have been exposed to IPV at an early age. An initial assessment directly following exposure to IPV may not be able to identify behavior problems in young children. Because the negative effects of early IPV exposure are delayed until the child is of school age, early intervention is necessary for reducing the risk of later aggressive behavior.” Dr. Holmes proposed that children may initially respond to the threat of IPV by becoming more passive in order to avoid physical assault themselves, but later develop aggression. She suggests the development of targeted intervention for children who have been exposed to IPV in order to reduce risk. The study found that the more frequently children were exposed to intimate partner violence in their early years, the more aggressive their behaviors became when they reached school age. On the other hand, children never exposed to intimate partner violence showed a gradual decrease in aggression as they aged.

Dr. Holmes suggests that awareness of the delayed effect of violence exposure on young children can help professionals intervene during the ages of three and five, to help children process what they saw through interventions such as play and art therapies and teach the youngsters strategies for appropriate behavior.