Partner Abuse, Part 1: Reducing Behaviour Problems in Children Who Witness Abuse and Supporting Womens' Mental Health

Over 7 million children in the United States are witness to severe forms of spousal abuse every year.  While statistics show that both men and women can perpetrate violence against one another, women are much more likely to be physically injured than men. In severe cases, women find themselves in shelters with their children. Once there, approximately 33 percent of children display serious behaviour problems that tend to persist after they have left the shelter. In addition, the extra stress of having to deal with children who are acting out their fears and frustrations, can lead to more significant mental health problems for women. Project Support was developed to address child behaviour problems. More specifically, it was designed for individual families (mother and children) where the mother had been to a woman's shelter because of domestic violence and at least one of her children was showing clinical level behaviour problems. The intervention includes two main components: giving practical and emotional support to the mother during her transition from the women's shelter and teaching the mother a set of child management and nurturing skills that have been shown to be effective in the treatment of clinical levels behaviour problems in children.

A recent study looking at the effectiveness of the program was reported in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The researchers studied 66 families (mothers and children) who had been to a domestic violence shelter and who had a least one child who showed significant behaviour problems. They found three effects on the families that participated in the Project Support program. First, the childrens' behaviour improved. Second, mothers were much less likely to be inconsistent and harsh in their parenting behaviours and third, mothers displayed fewer psychiatric symptoms.

It is important to note that the intervention (teaching mothers child management skills and providing practical and emotional support to mothers) was focused on the mothers and not the children. Children often reflect the circumstances they find themselves in. When it is possible and appropriate, intervening with their parents is often more effective than giving children direct treatment.

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