Psychology’s Approach To Studying
By Andrea Maikovich
There are few decisions more colossal than the decision of whether or not to remove a child from their home. From the perspective of psychology, the difficulty in making decisions such as this lies in large part with the basic fact that it is very difficult to predict human behavior at the individual level. While we know that parents who abuse their children once are likely to re-abuse them in the future, it is difficult to predict which parents will re-abuse. While we know that youth, as a whole, have higher rates of mental illness when they are exposed to violence, it is difficult to predict how any individual child will respond emotionally and behaviorally to this stressor, or to removal from their home for that matter. As with any decision of similar magnitude, there are differing opinions regarding the criteria on which the choice to remove a child from his or her home should be made. What constitutes true danger to the child? What is the quantity and quality of evidence on which we are basing that judgment? What is our balance of intuition to scientific evidence? The purpose of this brief article is to generate critical thought about what it means to say that something in the environment, such as exposure to violence, causes childhood emotional and behavior problems, and to encourage more careful, clear, scientific thinking about these issues when making critical, life-altering decisions regarding children. It is also to demonstrate how psychology, just one of many fields invested in the study of childhood violence, thinks about these issues.
There is a significant amount of debate regarding whether children who witness domestic violence, but who are not themselves victimized, are at a high enough level of risk to warrant removal from their homes. This issue serves as a useful example from which to launch our discussion of the science of risk. When psychologists seek to understand a risk factor, they start with an assessment of the magnitude of the problem. Rates of domestic violence in the United States are alarmingly high. One respected series of studies suggests that partner-against-partner assault has occurred in at least one out of every six American romantic relationships, and that approximately 10 million American children witness some form of family violence in any given year.1 In other words, we’re talking about a lot of children. Given the reality of an already under-funded, under-staffed child protective services system, it is clearly important to understand as much as possible exactly what effects witnessing violence has on children’s development, at least at the population pattern level, in order to inform empirically-grounded risk assessment and eventual intervention.
When considering any complex and multi-faceted question such as the extent to which a specific environmental stressor affects children, it is tempting to turn to intuition and emotion, which of course simplifies things to an unacceptable degree. Of course watching Daddy beat up Mommy is going to negatively affect little Suzie, right? How couldn’t it? When the answer to the question of how and the degree to which Suzie is likely to be affected by this violence, however, becomes evidence on which the decision about whether to remove her from her mother’s care is partially based, it becomes clear that more than intuition and emotion is needed. Thus enters the need for good researchers, whose job it is to carefully and critically examine how and why witnessing violence matters.
The existing research literature base does provide some evidence that witnessing violence is harmful for children’s mental health. For example, one study compared a group of abused boys to boys who had witnessed domestic violence and found that they had similar adjustment problems.2 Several other studies have found that children who both witness domestic violence and are abused have higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems than children who experience only one form of violence.3 It is critical to note, however, that most of these types of studies show correlation but not causation. In other words, while they show that children who witness violence have higher rates of problems than children who don’t witness violence, they don’t necessarily prove that it was the violence that caused the problems. There are hundreds of potential reasons why kids who experience family violence have higher levels of mental health problems that have nothing at all to do with the violence. Abuse and domestic violence typically don’t travel alone as childhood stressors.4 They are often (but certainly not always) accompanied by poverty, community violence, poor schools, and the gamut of other childhood stressors. Thus, it can be difficult to isolate the effects of abuse or witnessing violence from these other stressors, all of which predict childhood mental health problems by themselves. Thus, it is extremely important to understand the difference between correlation and causation, and to dig deeper into the specific mechanisms through which violence is associated with children’s problems in order to truly be able to make the claim that it is the violence per se that is responsible for the child’s symptoms, and in order to design the most appropriately targeted interventions.
Studies that have begun to examine linking mechanisms between violence and children’s mental health problems have primarily focused on child maltreatment. These studies suggest that there are both direct and indirect links between family violence and poor childhood mental health outcomes. An example of a direct link is that abused children appear to have deficient attention self-regulatory abilities and subsequently over-attend to anger cues.5 Children who are physically abused are also much more likely to perceive violence as an acceptable and appropriate form of human interaction.6 Studies are also quite clear that there are a plethora of indirect links between abuse and poor psychological outcome. For example, abusive parents engage in other poor parenting practices that in and of themselves predict children’s emotional and behavioral problems.7 They interact less with their children, are less likely to use reasoning and simple commands, and are less likely to choose disciplinary punishments that match the significance of the child misdeed.8
Certainly the caregivers’ own levels of emotional problems matter too. Adult victims of family violence have higher-than-average rates of stress and mental health problems,9 and at least one study has found that the relationship between family and community violence and children’s depression was partly explained by maternal depression. Another study10 found that the behavior problems of battered women’s children were primarily predicted by maternal stress and paternal irritability, not the violence itself. In short, caregivers who are depressed or stressed are less consistently available as supportive, reliable, warm parents, parenting characteristics associated with childhood problems.11 Finally, studies suggest that adults with histories of mental illness are more likely to form physically and psychologically abusive relationships in the first place,12 suggesting that family violence may be in part a marker for genetic risk for psychopathology that parents transmit to children.13
Thus, a whirlwind tour of the literature suggests that it is not necessarily as simple as one might think to make a strong case that one specific form of violence, like witnessing domestic violence, causes childhood problems. We must be more committed to going beyond identifying associations and correlations; we must seek to demonstrate causation by ruling out other hypotheses about what else may be explaining the association. Much more research is needed in this area, because the social workers and clinicians making critical choices that change children’s lives need to be able to make educated, empirically-supported decisions and not have to rely on intuition, emotion, and guesswork. The purpose of this article was not to provide answers or guidelines, but rather to suggest that these issues are extremely complex. This complexity cannot be ignored for the sake of convenience.
- Straus, M. A., Hamby, S. L., Finkelhor, D., Moore, D. W., & Runyan, D. (1998). Identification of child maltreatment with the Parent-Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2): Development and preliminary psychometric data. Journal of Family Issues, 17, 283-316.
- Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., Wilson, S.K., & Zak, L. (1986). Family violence and child adjustment: A comparative analysis of girls’ and boys’ behavioral symptoms. American Journal of Psychiatry, 143, 74-76.
- Wolfe, D. A., Crooks, C. V., Lee, V., McIntyre-Smith, A., & Jaffe, P. G. (2003). The effects of children’s exposure to domestic violence: A meta-analysis and critique. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6, 171-187.
- National Research Council (1993). Understanding child abuse and neglect. Panel on Research on Child Abuse and Neglect. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
- Shackman, J., Shackman, A., & Pollak, S. D. (2007). Physical abuse amplifies attention to threat and increases anxiety in children. Emotion, 7, 838-852.
- Black, D., & Newman, M. (1996). Children and domestic violence: A review. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 79-88.
- Belsky, J. (1993). Etiology of child maltreatment: A developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 413-434.
- Trickett, P. K., & Kuczynski, L. (1986). Children’s misbehaviors and parental discipline strategies in abusive and nonabusive families. Developmental Psychology, 22, 115-123.
- Farver, J. A. M., Xu, Y., Eppe, S., Fernandez, A., & Schwartz, D. (2005).Community violence, family conflict, and preschoolers’ socioemotional functioning. Developmental Psychology, 41, 160-170.
- Holden, G. W., & Ritchie, K. L. (1991). Linking extreme marital discord, child rearing, and child behavior problems: evidence from battered women. Child Development, 62, 311-327.
- Katz, L. F., & Gottman, J. M. (1997). Buffering children from marital conflict and dissolution. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26, 157-171.
- Magdol, L., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., & Silva, P. A. (1998). Developmental antecedents of partner abuse: A prospective-longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107, 375-389.
- Jaffee, S. R., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A. & Arseneault, A. (2004). Physical Maltreatment Victim to Antisocial Child: Evidence of an Environmentally Mediated Process. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 44-55.