Risk and Resilience among Children Exposed to Family Violence

By Kolbo, Jerome R. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Risk and Resilience among Children Exposed to Family Violence


Kolbo, Jerome R., Violence and Victims


Research on the relationship between exposure to family violence and functional adaptation in children has been inconsistent and inconclusive. In this study, exposure to family violence was correlated with vulnerability, resilience, and protective factors in a clinical sample of 60 children aged 8 through 11. Exposure was found to be related to children's self-worth and to behavior problems. However, these relationships varied by gender, support, and type of functioning being measured. Exposure was positively correlated with behavioral problems among girls, and negatively correlated with self-worth among boys. High levels of support protected boys only from the effects of exposure.

National estimates of family violence suggest that more than 16%, or one out of every six couples, engage in violent acts each year (Straus & Gelles, 1990; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). Based on data from a Straus and colleagues (1980) survey, Carlson (1984) estimated that each year well over 3.3 million children witness such violence. Given the frequency and severity of family violence, and the likelihood that children will be exposed to the violence in their homes, recent efforts have been made to examine the effects of violence in the home on children. The findings in these investigations, however, have been conflicting and inconclusive. Several studies found children exposed to family violence have significantly more emotional and behavioral problems than children not exposed to violence. Emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem have been found to be associated with exposure to violence (e.g., Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Hughes, 1988; Hughes, Parkinson, & Vargo, 1989). Significant differences in behavioral problems such as aggression, hyperactivity, and conduct disorders have also been associated with such exposure (e.g., Hershorn & Rosenbaum, 1985; Hughes, 1988; Hughes et al., 1989; Jouriles, Murphy, & O'Leary, 1989).

Other investigators, in contrast, have failed to find significant relationships between exposure to family violence and emotional problems (Hughes & Barad, 1983; Rosenbaum & O'Leary, 1981; Wolfe, Zak, Wilson, & Jaffe, 1986) and behavioral problems (Christopoulos et al., 1987; Rosenbaum & O'Leary, 1981; Wolfe et al., 1986). In fact, a number of the children in these studies appear relatively unaffected. For example, Jouriles and associates (1989) found that approximately one half of the 87 children exposed to interspousal aggression and marital discord in their study did not express behavior problems within the clinical range when using the Behavioral Problem Checklist (BPC) (Quay & Peterson, 1979). Similarly, Rosenbaum and O'Leary (1981) found more children from 53 violent homes had emotional and behavioral problem scores falling within the normal range than within the clinical range on the BPC.

While it is reasonable to assume that exposure to violence has some impact on children, explanations for the differences in developmental outcomes among children in these studies have not been forthcoming. Obviously, some of the differences noted may be due to variations in research designs, sample selection, description and definition of constructs, informants, comparison groups, measures and instruments. It is also possible that there are certain factors protecting some of the children from the effects, while leaving others more vulnerable. Many factors that may account for the differences in findings have yet to be examined. Consequently, the relationship between exposure and developmental outcomes in children remains unclear.

The purpose of this paper is to report results of a study that examined several factors expected to mediate the effects of exposure on children's emotional and behavioral development. The study was guided by the empirical and theoretical work emerging in the field of developmental psychopathology (Cicchetti, 1990). …

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