Children’s Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence

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Jeffrey L. Edleson University of Minnesota The author wishes to thank Susan Schechter and Andrea Bible for their helpful feedback provided on earlier versions of this manuscript. Running head: Children’s Experience of Domestic Violence Abstract Social service professionals are more frequently identifying children who witness adult domestic violence as victims of that abuse. This article expands common definitions of how children witness violence, and adult domestic violence in particular. Over 80 research papers were reviewed and a variety of behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical functioning problems among children were found to be associated with exposure to domestic violence. Factors that appear to mediate the impact of witnessing violence, such as child gender, age, and time since last exposure to violence are identified. Concerns about research methodology are also raised. CHILDREN’S WITNESSING OF ADULT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE Many people have suggested that family violence – at least to the degree it is observed today – is a recent phenomenon. Yet violence between intimates has long been a part of family life. It has been described repeatedly in religious and historical documents across many centuries, dating as far back as the Roman Empire (Davidson, 1977; Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Some have also argued that current levels of family violence reflect a break-down in the moral structure of the family (see Levine, 1986). This too is unlikely. Rather, as Gordon (1988) suggests, the “ebb-and-flow pattern of concern about family violence...suggests that its incidence has not changed as much as its visibility” (p. 2). Children who witness violence between adults in their homes are only the most recent victims to become visible. These children have been called the “silent,” “forgotten,” and “unintended” victims of adult-to-adult domestic violence (Elbow, 1982; Groves et al., 1993; Rosenbaum & O’Leary, 1981). Studies of archived case records from social service and governmental agencies provide ample evidence that violence has long occurred at levels similar to those measured today and that children are frequently present during violence incidents (Edleson, 1991; Gordon, 1988; Peterson, 1991; Pleck, 1987).

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An understanding of the current literature on how children witness violence and what developmental problems are associated with witnessing violence is an important foundation for program design and policy development. This article focuses on understanding how witnessing violence is defined and what we know about its effects on children.

How Do Children Experience Domestic Violence? Witnessing a violent event is most commonly defined as being within visual range of the violence and seeing it occur. For example, witnesses are often portrayed as giving an “eyewitness account” of a crime. Pynoos and Eth’s (1984) studies of children who witnessed the murder of a parent reinforce this definition. One example they offer is: “Julie, a 4-year-old girl, was the only witness to her divorced mother’s fatal stabbing. Several months earlier, at the time of the divorce, Julie’s father had publicly threatened to kill his ex-wife...Although the father lacked an alibi for the night of the crime, there was no physical evidence linking him to the homicide...In describing the event, she (Julie) consistently placed her father at the scene, described significant portions of the central action, and recounted her father’s efforts to clean up prior to leaving...Only after the district attorney saw Julie stabbing a pillow, crying `Daddy pushed mommy down,’ did he become convinced that the father indeed was the murderer” (p. 100). A mother in a different study describes her daughter’s involvement in a violent event this way: “As (my husband) came back in the house and went in the bedroom and got another bullet and loaded the gun again and started to raise the gun, I really think...
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