Processes Underlying Children's Adjustment in Families Characterized by Physical Aggression*
Key Words: child adjustment, family violence, internalizing behaviors, parenting behaviors, physical aggression, prosocial behaviors.
The hypothesis that physical aggression in the family affects children's adjustment through both observational learning/modeling and through its impact on parenting was tested (via LISREL) using data from a representative sample of Canadian children (N = 11,221). Results showed that observational learning and disrupted parenting provide reasonable, if only partial explanations, of mothers' assessments of children's adjustment in families characterized by physical aggression. Models for preschool (4-5 years), young (69 years), and older school-age (10-11 years) children fit acceptably and showed similar but weak effects. Children reported to witness more aggression also were reported to behave more aggressively. Mothers who reported being less warm and responsive in parenting reported that their children were more aggressive, had more internalizing behaviors, and had fewer prosocial behaviors.
The adverse outcomes for children exposed to physical aggression in their families have long been recognized. These children tend to exhibit patterns of maladjustment, including higher levels of externalizing behaviors (aggressiveness, noncompliance, disruptiveness), internalizing behaviors (anxiety, depression, social withdrawal), and lower levels of social competence than children not exposed to this behavior in their families (for reviews, see Kolbo, Blakely, & Engleman, 1996; Mohr, Noone Lutz, Fantuzzo, & Perry, 2000; Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998). These children are at risk for long-term behavioral and emotional difficulties and for repeating the aggressive dynamics in their own adult lives (Egeland, 1993).
Relative to our knowledge of the adverse outcomes for children, research has done little to elucidate the mechanisms that underlie the risk for these outcomes to provide an understanding of how children are actually affected by witnessing aggression (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Fauber & Long, 1991; Fincham, 1994; Fincham, Grych, & Osborne, 1994; Rutter, 1994). Further advances require that research focus more on understanding the specific mechanisms that explain the association between intrafamily aggression and children's adjustment. This information is needed both for scientific purposes and to inform policy, prevention, and treatment efforts.
Observational learning is one mechanism by which intrafamily aggression is thought to influence children's adjustment (Bandura, 1973). Social learning theory suggests that children learn aggressive behavior the same way they learn other kinds of behavior, namely by observation and imitation. This perspective proposes that children internalize the behavior they frequently witness in role models and incorporate it into their own repertoire of behavior. Numerous studies have shown that children exposed to both real aggression and laboratory simulations were more aggressive than nonexposed children (Cummings, 1987; Cummings, Zahn-Waxler, & Radke-Yarrow, 1981; El-Sheikh & Cheskes, 1995; Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998). Children responded to simulated conflict between an adult and a child, as well as to conflict between two adults.
Although social learning theory has been relatively successful in explaining children's aggressive behavior, it has been less successful in explaining other problem behaviors exhibited by children exposed to aggression in their families. An alternate mechanism has been suggested to help explain the wider range of children's adjustment difficulties. Intrafamily aggression has been postulated to produce adverse effects in children because of the disruption to parenting that occurs in these families (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Fauber & Long, 1991; Rutter, 1994; Wolfe & Jaffe, 1991). …