Collateral damage

Dr Gordon Harold looks at the implications of research on the effects inter-parental conflict has on children.

Domestic violence constitutes a problem of significant social concern. Although initial research activity has understandably concentrated upon the female victims of domestic violence, it is increasingly recognised that children may also be profoundly at risk as a result of witnessing domestic violence.(1)

This has recently been translated into policy with the Children Act 1989 being amended to incorporate the witnessing of domestic violence as a child protection concern and legal interpretations developed around domestic violence cases.

What is it about children’s experience of domestic violence that puts most, but not all, of them at risk of suffering adverse effects; and how can practitioners use such information to develop positive intervention programmes?

Holden suggests that about 40 per cent of children from families characterised as domestically violent exhibit clinically significant emotional and behavioural problems (compared with 10 per cent of children living in homes not characterised as domestically violent).(2)

Yet, while there is a large and established body of research focusing on the specific outcomes associated with children’s exposure to domestic violence, there is a distinct lack of research highlighting the underlying processes that explain why some children appear resilient to the trauma while others go on to develop long-term, clinically significant psychological problems.

Conversely, in the context of non-violent, inter-parental conflict there is not only a long and established literature highlighting the link between conflict in the couple relationship and children’s psychological development, there is also an expansive body of research highlighting the processes through which inter-parental conflict affects children.(3)

This research suggests that the effects of inter-parental conflict on children are determined through disruptions in the parent-child relationship and the negative emotions, perceptions and representations of family relationships brought about in children who are exposed to hostile exchanges between their parents.

Importantly, this research highlights the “voice-of-the-child” as central to understanding how conflict between parents adversely affects children’s development.

By highlighting the role of children’s own understanding of conflict between adults as a mechanism through which adverse effects may be explained, the role of children as “active agents” as compared to “passive victims” in the context of domestic violence is emphasised.(4)

Children are not only affected by witnessing conflict directly but are also at risk through the processes of attributing blame caused by living in households marked by high levels of inter-parental conflict.

Intervention programmes therefore need to consider the child’s perspective in order to better understand the effects of conflict on children’s development. CC

Dr Gordon Harold is a lecturer at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University

(1) M Rivett, et al, “Watching from the stairs: towards an evidence-based practice in work with child witnesses of domestic violence”, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 11(1), 2006
(2) G Holden, et al (eds), “Children exposed to marital violence: theory, practice and applied Issues”, American Psychological Association, 199
(3) H & J Fincham, F Grych, “Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: A cognitive-contextual framework”, Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267-290. 1990;
(4) G Harold et al, Not in front of the children? How conflict between parents affects children, One Plus One Marriage and Partner Research, 2001

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