Evaluating Preschool Children's Attitudes and Beliefs about Intimate Partner Violence

By Howell, Kathryn H.; Miller, Laura E. et al. | Violence and Victims, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Evaluating Preschool Children's Attitudes and Beliefs about Intimate Partner Violence


Howell, Kathryn H., Miller, Laura E., Graham-Bermann, Sandra A., Violence and Victims


Few studies have considered how intimate partner violence (IPV) impacts children's overarching attitudes and beliefs about the prevalence and acceptability of aggression. This pilot study included 92 preschool children exposed to IPV who reported on attitudes and beliefs about violence using a new, theoretically driven measure. Findings illustrate that preschoolers were able to respond reliably on this measure, and that most report at least one maladaptive attitude or belief about violence. Maternal posttraumatic avoidance symptoms, increased child aggression, and decreased child self-blame were associated with maladaptive attitudes and beliefs. These findings, although preliminary, indicate that clinicians may need to address both children's individual adjustment following violence exposure as well as their attitudes and beliefs concerning the acceptability of violence in interpersonal relationships.

Keywords: intimate partner violence; child aggression; social learning theory; child adjustment; violence exposure

Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) can lead to significant and chronic impairment in children (Graham-Bermann, Gruber, Howell, & Girz, 2009; Paterson, Carter, Gao, Cowley-Malcolm, & Iusitini, 2008; Sternberg, Baradaran, Abbott, Lamb, & Guterman, 2006). Researchers continue to recognize and evaluate the consequences of witnessing violence in the home, particularly for preschool children who seem most negatively impacted by such exposure (Bevan & Higgins, 2002; Ehrensaftet al., 2003). Only a handful of studies, however, have examined how children process and interpret their parents' conflict, with even less research on how exposure to violence affects preschoolers' attitudes and beliefs about conflict in relationships as a whole (Ablow, Measelle, Cowan, & Cowan, 2009).

THE NEED FOR EARLY EVALUATION

If a child is at home when violence occurs, national studies indicate that they have some kind of exposure to the violence 95% of the time (Fusco & Fantuzzo, 2009). Children's experience of witnessing violence is frequently much broader than direct exposure; as along with seeing, hearing, or being involved in episodes of IPV, witnessing violence also often includes its aftermath, such as seeing injuries, moving to a shelter, or observing police intervention (Edleson, 1999). The risk of witnessing violence is especially high for young, preschool-aged children as compared to older children (Fantuzzo & Fusco, 2007). Furthermore, IPV is uniquely distressing for preschool-aged children because they cannot escape the violence through independent outlets as readily as older children who may have access to peer and social networks outside of the home. When compared to older children, preschoolers exposed to IPV evidence significantly lower levels of self-esteem and social skills as well as higher rates of aggression and acting out behavior (Fantuzzo et al., 1991; Rossman, Rea, Butterfield, & Graham-Bermann, 2004).

Literature from the field of developmental psychology underscores the distinct effect of early childhood exposure to adverse events, including IPV. Such exposure can have long-lasting effects on a child's stress responses, brain structures, and affective processing. Family violence, in particular, seems to exert a strong, negative affect on young children's neurodevelopmental processes involved in adaptation and maladaptation following exposure to adverse events (Briggs-Gowan et al., 2010). Such research highlights the unique vulnerabilities of preschool-aged children. When violence occurs in the home, children may actively attempt to interpret, predict, and evaluate the conflict. This attempt to create meaning from the violence can affect key elements of development among young children, including aspects of self-blame, emotional expression, and gender roles (Baker & Cunningham, 2009).

CHILDREN'S COGNITIVE INTERPRETATION OF CONFLICT

Children's cognitive response, or appraisal of conflict in the home, impacts their short- and long-term functioning. …

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