The Effect of Children's Presence on Alcohol Use by Spouse Abusers and Their Victims

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The Effect of Children's Presence on Alcohol Use by Spouse Abusers and Their Victims*

Key Words: alcohol, child witnesses, spouse abuse.

The relationship of children's presence to alcohol use by male batterers and their female victims is examined in a study of 419 women interviewed after a domestic assault which resulted in a call to the police. Children were present and witness to the abuse in the majority of homes. Children's presence had slight impact on the heavy drinking patterns of the batterers and generally no effect on victims ' much lower alcohol use.

Although alcohol is occasionally seen as a direct cause of family violence (Bushman & Cooper, 1990; Flanzer, .1993), research has more generally concluded that it is a contnbutor in a vanety ot complex ways tcr. Hayes & lmsnott, 1993; Martin, 1993; Pernanen, 1991; Reiss & Roth, 1993). Collins and Schlenger (1988) found that acute drinking episodes-excessive drinking immediately before incidentswere significant predictors of violence, but that chronic patterns were not.

The majority of the research on alcohol and woman battering has focused on such issues as prevalence, severity, and injury with relatively little attention to the impact of children in such situations. Although Gelles (1976) found that the presence of teenage children in the home increased the likelihood that abused women would call the police or seek agency help, other research has shown that the presence of children has little impact on incidents of spouse abuse (Hutchison & Hirschel, 1996; Moore, 1997). While children are frequently present during incidents of battering, and these events are often marked by heavy alcohol usage, there is very little research which addresses the influence that children's presence might have on the characteristics of the event. Are batterers more likely to be drinking because children are an added stress, or less likely because they are conscious of setting a bad example for the children? If they are drinking, do they consume more or less if children are present? In the interest of the children, is either the batterer or the victim less likely to get drunk? This article addresses whether the presence of children has a deterrent effect on alcohol use by batterers or victims before or during incidents of spouse abuse.


Child Witnesses to Spouse Abuse

The issue of children witnessing abuse has emerged relatively recently in the study of family violence. In an effort to untangle the causes of family violence, researchers have investigated the relationship between childhood socialization and subsequent adult predispositions toward abusive relationships. In Hotaling and Sugarman's (1986) review of marital violence research, only one factor emerged as a consistent predictor of a woman being in an abusive relationship: whether she had witnessed or experienced abuse as a child. Evidence of intergenerational transmission, that child witnesses to abuse will later replicate the experience as either perpetrator or victim, has also been found by others (Cappell & Heiner, 1990; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). There is considerable evidence for a general association between witnessing domestic violence as a child and maladaptive behavior (Davis & Carlson, 1987; Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989; Wolfe, Jaffe, Wilson, & Zak, 1985). However, families may be dysfunctional in multiple ways and the effect on children of witnessing parental abuse is seldom straightforward (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 1997; McGee, 1997; Widom, 1989). Arroyo and Eth (1995) examined the consequences to children of witnessing violence from the standpoint of post-traumatic stress and developmental stage. Infants may exhibit hypervigilance, regression or clinging behavior; young children (e.g., 3-5 years old) manifest withdrawal and attachment problems; school age children may suffer from developmental regression and also experience distorted moral development; adolescents reflect behavior more comparable to adult PTSD, including antisocial behavior, sexual acting out, and substance abuse (Arroyo & Eth, 1995). …