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Diversity of Children's Immediate Coping Responses to Witnessing Domestic Violence

NCJ Number
Journal of Emotional Abuse Volume: 3 Issue: 1/2 Dated: 2003 Pages: 123-147
Nicole E. Allen; Angela M. Wolf; Deborah I. Bybee; Cris M. Sullivan
Date Published
25 pages
This study examined the coping strategies that a sample of children immediately used in responding to their witnessing of physical and emotional violence against their mothers.
Eighty women and 80 of their children were recruited from a variety of sources, including 2 domestic-violence shelter programs, a community-based family services agency, and a social services department, all located in a mid-sized urban city. To be eligible for the study, the mother had to have experienced domestic violence in the prior 4 months and have at least one child between the ages of 7 and 11 living with them. The study obtained information on the physical abuse of the mother, the emotional abuse of the mother, injuries suffered by the mother, and her overall abuse. Measures of the child's well-being focused on behavioral problems, depression, and self-perception. The child's witnessing of the mother's abuse was determined from reports of both the mother and the child. Mothers and children were also asked whether the children experienced or engaged in a range of emotional and behavioral responses to witnessing abuse against their mothers. Emotional reactions included being fearful angry, and/or confused. Behavioral reactions included a variety of responses, including getting help, leaving the room, trying to stop what was happening, phoning someone, and pretending to ignore or ignoring what was happening. In addition, mothers were asked if children became overprotective of them, became aggressive toward the assailant, and/or got a sibling to help. The study found that children's immediate coping strategies tended to depend more on situational variables (e.g., the frequency and type of abuse they witnessed) than on individual characteristics of the child. Children who had little response to the abuse of their mothers were more likely to have witnessed less physical and emotional abuse than the other children. Children who became aggressive toward the assailant were more likely to be living with them than children who responded in other ways. Virtually no differences were found across coping clusters with regard to the relationship between the coping strategy used and child well-being. Given that children had such varied responses even when witnessing the same type and amount of violence, it is important that interventions not focus on a single approach when teaching children about responding to violence against their mothers. Interventions with children should emerge from the strategies children have pursued out of their own temperament and perceptions of the situation. 2 tables, 3 notes, and 52 references