Effects of Early Exposure and Lifetime Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) on Child Adjustment

Article excerpt

Children exposed to overwhelming and potentially traumatic events early in their lives are considered at-risk for problems in adjustment. Yet it is not known whether it is the age of first exposure (AFE) to violence or the amount of violence that the child witnessed in their lifetime that has the greatest impact on adjustment. For a sample of 190 children ages 6 to 12 exposed to intimate partner violence, their mothers reported that the average length of their abusive relationship was 10 years. The majority of children were first exposed to family violence as infants (64%), with only 12% first exposed when school-aged. Both the AFE and an estimate of the cumulative amount of violence were significantly and negatively related to children's behavioral problems. However, in regression analyses controlling for child sex, ethnicity, age, and family environment variables, cumulative violence exposure accounted for greater variance in adjustment than did AFE. Furthermore, cumulative violence exposure mediated the relationship between AFE and externalizing behavior problems, indicating that the cumulative exposure to IPV outweighed the AFE in its effect on child adjustment.

Keywords : violence exposure; domestic violence; child adjustment; externalizing problems; internalizing problems

Many children are exposed to myriad forms of violence during the course of their development. Recent extrapolations from nationally representative samples of American households indicate approximately 15.5 million children were exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) in the last year, and 7 million were exposed to severe IPV (McDonald, Jouriles, Ramisetty-Mikler, Caetano, & Green, 2006). Young children are found to be disproportionately at-risk for witnessing this form of violence, and for exposure to multiple forms of violence, suggesting vulnerability by age (Fantuzzo, Boruch, Beriama, Atkins, & Markus, 1997; Fantuzzo & Fusco, 2007).

This exposure has implications for optimal physical health, mental health, the development of social skills, and cognitive processing. A meta-analysis of studies of the effects of children's exposure to IPV indicates that approximately 40% to 60% of schoolage children exposed to IPV are in the clinical range on internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems, such as anxiety, depression, and aggression, indicating the need for intervention (Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, & Jaffe, 2003). While there are fewer studies of younger children and IPV, there is evidence associating IPV with decrements in preschoolers' development in the areas of social behavior, academic performance, and physical and mental health (Graham-Bermann, Howell, Habarth, Krishnan, Lore & Bermann, 2008). In a study of 3- to 5-year-olds in families with IPV, 60% to 74% of children were in the clinical range on standardized measures of behavioral adjustment problems of aggression, anxiety, and social withdrawal (Howell, Graham-Bermann, Czyz, & Lilly, 2010). This rate is 30 times higher than expected in the general population.

Despite the wealth of information on children exposed to IPV, we know little about the typical age at which children are first exposed to such violence in their family. Even so, it is not clear whether it is the age at which the child is first exposed to violence, as suggested by the studies reviewed here, or the amount of violence that the child witnesses in a given period of time (or both) that is related to their adjustment. The present study is concerned with identifying the age at which children are first exposed to IPV and whether it is the early exposure and/or the estimated cumulative amount of violence they witness that is associated with greater deficits in adjustment.


The negative effects of exposure may differ depending on the stage at which children are first exposed to violence. Researchers have shown that children in families where IPV takes places witness this violence from an early age, often as young as 2 or 3 years of age (Jarvis, Gordon, & Novaco, 2005). …