While some children are victims of violence in their homes, others are witnesses. Do not be misled by this distinction though. Being a witness does not make children less vulnerable to the consequences. Acts of violence and the emotions they produce—intense fear, anger, grief, a constant anticipation of the next terrifying incident—get imprinted in the child’s mind and expressed, sometimes not right away but eventually. In fact, the consequences might take a few years to show up.
Megan R. Holmes, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, studies domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence (IPV). She explains that each year nearly five million children are exposed to IPV. They witness the acts of violence or the after-effects. They hear fights. They see bruises, lacerations, and broken bones. They navigate homes in disarray—shattered glass, overturned furniture. She adds that more than half of these children are exposed to severe forms of IPV. They witness a parent or other important caregiver being burned, choked, or threatened with a knife or gun.
Holmes explains that many research studies link exposure to IPV with a number of difficulties for children, including emotional problems such as depression and anxiety; academic problems such as lower intellectual ability and struggles with memory and concentration; social problems like loneliness and less competence with establishing peer relationships; and behavioral problems such as aggression and delinquency. In other words, children might internalize the effects of violence and suffer privately, or they might externalize the havoc and suffer publicly. Sometimes it’s both.
INFANTS AND TODDLERS
In her most recently completed research project, Holmes examined the long-term effects of IPV on children who were exposed between birth and age three (n=107) and compared the data with children of the same age who were not exposed (n=339). She chose this age group because little is known about the long-term consequences of IPV exposure for the youngest witnesses.
“The earliest childhood experiences provide the foundation for later development,” she says, “and for success in school and in relationships with other children and adults.”
In her study, Holmes conducted a secondary analysis of data collected as part of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, which is a longitudinal study designed to assess the outcomes of children who have been reported to Child Protective Services as being victims of abuse or neglect. The study was funded by the National Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood (www.qic-ec.org). Some of the results from this study are being published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which is in press.
Results: A Sleeper Effect
Holmes studied the long-term effects of IPV upon children’s prosocial skills, which include cooperation, responsibility, assertiveness, and respect. She also examined the long-term effects on aggressive behaviors, which include yelling, shouting, and hitting. Her analyses included five years of data and revealed that negative effects do not show up immediately. Rather, children gradually become more aggressive, especially between the ages of five and six. In addition, children exposed to severe forms of IPV (e.g., burns, choking, threats with a knife or gun) demonstrate prosocial deficits a year after the incident. Holmes refers to this as the sleeper effect. Many of these symptomatic behaviors arise as children enter preschool and grade school, when they start to socialize more formally with their peers.
ASSESSMENT & INTERVENTION
These findings have important implications for social work practice.When social workers learn that a child has been or may have been exposed to IPV, it is important for them to assess for the negative effects not only now but also over time, especially as the child begins to enter school. Likewise, when a problematic behavior shows up, it is important not only to assess for current exposure to IPV but also for
previous exposure—one, two, three, or more years earlier. Holmes adds that assessments need to include the age or developmental period when IPV exposure began as well as the nature of exposure, including duration and level of severity. Interventions should be targeted towards those children who are exposed when they are three years or younger and toward those who have experienced longer durations to or more severe forms of IPV. “Early assessment and intervention is necessary for supporting and promoting a future with more positive outcomes,” she concludes.
TEACHING & RESEARCH
Megan R. Holmes, PhD, joined the faculty of the Mandel School in July 2012. She teaches Foundations of Direct Practice and conducts research on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and its impact upon the children who witness it. She is currently examining the role of maternal warmth and sibling attachment as protective factors against the impact of violence exposure. Holmes was a recipient of a Society for SocialWork and Research Doctoral Fellows Award in 2012 and a recipient of a National Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood Dissertation Fellowship from 2010-12. She earned her doctorate at the University of California Los Angeles.