Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Children Exposed to Marital Violence: How School Counselors Can Help

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Children Exposed to Marital Violence: How School Counselors Can Help

Article excerpt

A counselor notices that 6-year-old Sandra's eyes are swollen from crying. In a corner of the first grade classroom, the counselor asks Sandra what's wrong. Sandra says that her parents have been fighting. The night before, she and her sister peeked through the kitchen door when they heard their parents yelling. They saw their father slap their mother across the face and shove her into a corner of the stove. The mother then hurled a chopping block at the father. The terrified children ran into their bedroom and huddled under a blanket, singing to keep out the noise. Sandra says that her mother was not home when she woke up this morning and she felt scared and alone, even though her father told her everything was okay.

How should school counselors respond to children exposed to marital violence? This article discusses the effects on children of exposure to marital violence and several ways school counselors can intervene to protect these children and help them benefit more from school.

Exposure and Its Effects

Estimates of the number of U.S. children between the ages of 3 and 17 who are exposed to at least one violent incident between their parents each year range from 3.3 million to nearly 10 million (Carlson, 1984; Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 1997). Surveys indicate that between 13% and 27% of adults recall witnessing physical conflict between their parents (Maker, Kemmelmeier, & Peterson, 1998). Whatever the exact figures, it is clear that large numbers of children are exposed to marital violence. Because couple violence often continues unabated for a decade or more, many children are exposed to multiple violent incidents throughout their school years, offering numerous opportunities for counselors to provide support, guidance, and intervention.

The term marital violence obscures the reality that this violence is most often initiated by a father or father figure against a mother or mother figure (Saunders, 1988). When there is mutual violence, usually the woman strikes blows to defend herself. In the vast majority of couples where there is marital violence, the dynamic is one of a woman living in fear, beaten and controlled by a domineering man. Although he, too, may be injured in fights, she is much more likely to be severely injured or killed and is more likely to be living in fear (Saunders, 1988). Marital violence, then, is a gender-neutral term to describe the gendered phenomena of woman battering.

The dynamics of couples with violence tend to fall into two types, called "common couple violence" and "patriarchal terrorism" (Johnson, 1995). In the first, one member of the couple (usually the man but sometimes the woman) occasionally strikes out in anger against the other, and sometimes the partner reciprocates. In the second, episodes of violence are part of a larger systematic effort by the man to control the woman, and the violence escalates in frequency and severity over time (Johnson, 1995). Battering incidents can occur frequently or rarely in the life of a couple. Sometimes, only one violent incident followed by occasional threats serves to maintain the woman's subjugation (LaRossa, 1980). Although some couples try to hide their violence, children are exposed to more than their parents realize (Hilton, 1992).

Exposure to marital violence may consist of a child directly viewing a violent incident, hearing it from another room, being made to witness or participate in the assault, being taken hostage to force the mother's return to the home, and being used as a bodily weapon during a fight. Additionally, children often suffer from disturbing aftereffects of the abuse such as witnessing bruises, responding to police questioning, and being separated from parents who may be hospitalized or incarcerated (Edelson, 1999a).

The literature on children exposed to marital violence is marred by problems of definition (e.g., what is exposure?) and methodology (e. …

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