Exposure to Parental Violence and Outcomes of Child Psychosocial Adjustment

By Ellonen, Noora; Piispa, Minna et al. | Violence and Victims, February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Exposure to Parental Violence and Outcomes of Child Psychosocial Adjustment


Ellonen, Noora, Piispa, Minna, Peltonen, Kirsi, Oranen, Mikko, Violence and Victims


Prior research suggests that exposure to violence at home increases the likelihood of mental health problems in children. Studies have also shown that children exposed to violence are more prone to delinquent behavior and regular alcohol use. This study examines the effects of witnessing and experiencing physical violence at home on the psychosocial adjustment of children. Children who both witnessed and personally experienced physical violence exhibited the highest levels of adjustment problems. However, having either one of these risk factors was also associated with negative outcomes. The data are based on the Finnish Child Victim Survey 2008 with a sample of 13,459 students aged 12-13 years and 15-16 years.

Keywords: violence against children; witnessing violence at home; psychosocial adjustment; victim survey

Several studies in psychology and social science have revealed that children who have been victims of abuse and neglect tend to have more psychosocial problems and function less adaptively in several areas of development compared to their nonabused peers (Boney-McCoy & Finkelhor, 1995; Peltonen, Ellonen, Larsen, & Helweg-Larsen, 2010; Trickett & McBride-Chang, 1995). Some evidence exists that both internalizing problems, such as depression and anxiety, and externalizing symptoms, such as aggression and hyperactivity, seem to occur among children and adolescents exposed to physical abuse, and that those who experience more serious physical abuse show more internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems than those who experience less serious abuse (Fantuzzo, 1990; Finzi et al., 2001; Peltonen et al., 2010; Stockhammer, Salzinger, Feldman, Mojica, & Primavera, 2001). Studies have also shown that children who are physically abused have elevated rates of violent offences, suicide attempts, and alcohol abuse (Fergusson & Lynskey, 1997).

Research also suggest that children who have witnessed domestic violence exhibit more aggressive and antisocial (externalizing behaviors) as well as fearful and inhibited behaviors (internalizing behaviors) than children who have not witnessed violence in their homes (Edleson, 1999). Witnessing violence within the family is also linked to later aggressive behavior (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003).

There is strong evidence suggesting that these two often also overlap: Children who witness violence in the family are also more likely to be abused at home (Bourassa, 2007; Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl, & Moylan, 2008). Children who have witnessed domestic violence and who also have been its victims tend to fare worse later in life than children who have experienced only one or none of these adversities (Bourassa, 2007; Herrenkohl et al., 2008). This "double jeopardy" effect has been recognized in prior research (Bourassa, 2007; Herrenkohl et al., 2008), but extensive research is lacking. Because of differences in definitions and methods used in the studies, the rate and strength of this association varies, and we do not have a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon (Herrenkohl et al., 2008). In addition, the existing evidence is inconsistent regarding gender differences in outcomes related to different experiences of violence. More research, where effects of different types of domestic violence and gender differences are included in the same analyses, are thus needed.

Idea of seeing victimization as a risk factor for children's psychosocial adjustment should also be introduced more into criminological research. In criminology deviant behavior, alcohol and drug use and mental health problems are usually seen as risk factors of victimization, not as consequences. According to many criminological theories, such as theory of routine activities by Cohen and Felson (1979) or self-control theory by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), these determinants are connected to individual's lifestyle choices, which are seen as a risk of victimization. …

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