Preventing Violence in Relationships: Psychological Science Addressing Complex Social Issues

By Wolfe, David A. | Canadian Psychology, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Preventing Violence in Relationships: Psychological Science Addressing Complex Social Issues


Wolfe, David A., Canadian Psychology


Abstract

This paper traces the development of a universal violence prevention initiative from its early roots in the dynamics of child abuse developmental psychopathology. My research has been devoted to preventing violence in relationships, including physical and sexual abuse of children, children who witness domestic violence, woman abuse, and dating violence in adolescence. A central theme throughout this work has been to integrate psychological knowledge about healthy, non-violent relationships with knowledge of risk factors for abuse and violence. As laws and public sentiment have challenged the generations-old status quo of family privacy and personal rights, psychology has risen to this challenge by studying aspects of abuse and violence in the lab, in analog situations, in the home, and in the clinic. This paper reflects how knowledge about the causes and consequences of violence in relationships is leading to promising educational and prevention initiatives such as the Fourth R, a universal schoolbased initiative aimed at early adolescence to reduce relationship violence and related risk behaviours.

The foundation for this paper began 25 years ago, when Peter Jaffe and I met for the first time over lunch. I had recently arrived in Canada from the U.S. and was struggling to develop effective interventions for child abusive parents with the local Children's Aid Society. Peter was facing similar challenges in working with the police and court system's response to youth and families in crisis. Child abuse and domestic violence were recurring themes in both of our research and clinical efforts, and quickly became the focus of our luncheon discussion.

Peter was preparing an assessment for the juvenile court about a 15-year-old boy charged with attempted murder of his stepfather. The prosecutor had made application to the court to have the charges heard in adult court because the case involved a premeditated act with a firearm. A psychological assessment for the court had been ordered to determine whether the young man belonged in the juvenile or adult system. What appeared at first to be a violent act involving a premeditated ambush of his stepfather when he arrived home from work, upon closer examination was in fact the culmination of 15 years of domestic violence and child abuse. The local police department had responded to domestic violence calls at this home for many years, but the violence continued. With a growing sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the boy decided to take matters into his own hands and use the very weapon his stepfather had often used to threaten his mother.

In our view, the offence before the court was more a reflection of the community's failure to address the reality of the violence experienced in this family than it was of the adolescent's character or psychological make-up. At the time this view was radical and sometimes misconstrued as condoning youth violence. However, the psychological assessment revealed the impact on this boy of growing up in a family war zone in which his mother suffered severe physical and emotional abuse on a frequent basis. To adapt to his family circumstances, this boy's survival and coping strategies had become increasingly desperate and ineffective. For the past three years, he had shown behaviour problems in school, signs of depression and anger, poor school attendance, declining achievement, and involvement in drugs and alcohol. Rather than these problems being viewed as warning signs of possible violence in the home or other major family stressors, they were taken at face value as signs of an antisocial adolescent. There was a sense of outrage among some community members that an adolescent was capable of such an offence, and they wanted the court to impose the most severe sentence possible. The assessment, in contrast, clearly showed a normal adolescent who had faced many years of tyranny, and ultimately had acted in self-defense of his mother, his sister, and himself. …

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