Profiles of Behavioral Problems in Children Who Witness Domestic Violence

By Spilsbury, James C.; Kahana, Shoshana et al. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Profiles of Behavioral Problems in Children Who Witness Domestic Violence


Spilsbury, James C., Kahana, Shoshana, Drotar, Dennis, Creeden, Rosemary, Flannery, Daniel J., Friedman, Steve, Violence and Victims


Unlike previous investigations of shelter-based samples, our study examined whether profiles of adjustment problems occurred in a community-program-based sample of 175 school-aged children exposed to domestic violence. Cluster analysis revealed three stable profiles/clusters. The largest cluster (69%) consisted of children below clinical thresholds for any internalizing or externalizing problem. Children in the next largest cluster (18%) were characterized as having externalizing problems with or without internalizing problems. The smallest cluster (13%) consisted of children with internalizing problems only. Comparison across demographic and violence characteristics revealed that the profiles differed by child gender, mother's education, child's lifetime exposure to violence, and aspects of the event precipitating contact with the community program. Clinical and future research implications of study findings are discussed.

Keywords: comorbidity; domestic violence; children; adolescents; adjustment profiles

Each year, 133-275 million children worldwide witness domestic violence (UNICEF, 2006). In the United States, approximately 15.5 million children live in households experiencing intimate partner violence (McDonald, Jouriles, Ramisetty-Mikler, Caetano, & Green, 2006). The effects on children of witnessing violence are profound and may include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders, depression, behavioral problems, and impaired cognitive and social functioning (McCloskey & Lichter, 2003; Osofsky, 1999; Robbie Rossman, 2001). Recent meta-analyses indicate that exposure to domestic violence results in significant additional psychopathology among children and adolescents from a public health perspective (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntryre-Smith, & Jaffe, 2003).

A growing body of research has identified factors that shape the effects of domestic violence on children, and several of these factors have been conceptualized as risk or protective factors for psychopathology related to exposure to traumatic events (La Greca, Silverman, Vernberg, & Prinstein, 1996). For instance, severity and frequency of domestic violence (Edleson, 1999; Grych & Fincham, 1993), as well as children's perceived threat to personal safety and perceived control over the events (Spilsbury et al., in press), have been linked to greater child psychopathology. Greater impairment has been reported in younger compared to older children (Fantuzzo, Boruch, Beriama, Atkins, & Marcus, 1997; Hughes, 1988; Tang, 1998), although a "protective" effect of older age is not consistently found (McFarlane, Groff, O'Brien, & Watson, 2003). Child gender also seems important, but research findings have been equivocal: One study found boys more likely than girls to exhibit both internalizing and externalizing problems (Porter & O'Leary, 1980); other research found problems more frequent in girls (Cummings, Pepler, & Moore, 1999; Spaccarelli, Sandler, & Roosa, 1994; Sternberg et al., 1993); some studies found girls more likely to exhibit internalizing and boys externalizing (Yates, Dodds, Alan Sroufe, & Egeland, 2003), or no gender differences (O'Keefe, 1994a). Concerning ethnicity, Black children exposed to domestic violence may exhibit fewer externalizing behaviors and greater social competence compared to White children (O'Keefe, 1994a, 1994b; Spilsbury et al., in press). However, the influence of ethnicity on children's responses to domestic violence is understudied.

Unfortunately, research on domestic violence's effects on children has been limited by several methodological problems. One issue is that specific adjustment problems (e.g., depression, conduct disorder, anxiety) have usually been investigated independently, without examining the possible multioccurrence of different types of problems (Grych, Jouriles, Swank, McDonald, & Norwood, 2000). …

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