Partner Abuse, Pt. 4: How are witnesses affected?

Boy on Beach by ColinBrougFor decades, researchers have been aware that child abuse has a severe, long-lasting negative impact on kids. Indirect victims of abuse – the child witnesses – also seem to experience a range of difficulties, including depression, anxiety, aggression, weak social skills, and school-related problems. As I looked over the research for our domestic violence articles this week, I found a disturbing statistic: multiple types of childhood trauma or abuse commonly co-occur, according to Teicher and his colleagues in a study published in the June 2006 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. What are the outcomes for abuse witnesses? And what about kids who are exposed to multiple types of abuse?

It’s well-established that kids who witness severe violence against or harm to their parents can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As Dr. Giuseppe wrote on Monday, one third of children who arrive in women’s shelters following domestic violence develop behavioural difficulties. Serious adjustment problems and PTSD have also been linked to witnessing domestic abuse, according to research by Kym Kilpatrick and her colleagues in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. In fact, in Kilpatrick’s small study, witnessing abuse had as strong an impact on young children as experiencing an abusive act! Even into the teen years, the impact is significant, with adolescents reporting increased aggression and feelings of sadness. The effects of these events can be long-lasting. In a 1997 article in the journal Psychotherapy, Patricia Von Steen noted that relationship violence is the most commonly reported long-term effect of having witnessed domestic abuse as a child. Von Steen expressed concern that these adults may have difficulty appropriately expressing emotions (especially anger) and that they tend to use nonconstructive strategies to resolve conflict. Ongoing PTSD symptoms were also cited as  a risk.

Teicher and his colleagues examined adolescents who had been the victims of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. They also asked about witnessing domestic violence between their parents. The combination of witnessing domestic violence and verbal aggression towards the teens by the parents was associated with “extraordinarily huge” adverse effects on a number of areas; links were found to differences in brain development, depressive symptoms, anxiety, anger, and hostility. The combination of emotional and physical abuse equaled or exceeded the impact of being abused sexually.

These findings may not be surprising to many of our readers, but they highlight the need for parents to get help. They also indicate that verbal aggression towards kids – which probably wouldn’t be unheard of in a household where domestic violence occurs – has a gigantic effect in combination with other kinds of abuse. Project Support is one possible avenue. Establishing physical safety is paramount though; it’s hard for me to imagine children overcoming anxiety or post-traumatic symptoms if there are ongoing safety concerns. In many Canadian cities, the website ementalhealth.ca provides information about the services available to victims and witnesses of domestic violence; this service is spreading to other cities around the world!

The New York Times thinks shouting is the new spanking – based on Teicher’s work, it looks like shouting can have a major negative impact!

You can read Teicher’s study here. Kilpatrick’s paper can be read here. Von Steen’s article is here.

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