UW News

December 4, 2003

Children who see mother abused are more likely to have behavior problems

Children exposed to abuse of their mother by an intimate partner are more likely to exhibit aggressive or delinquent behavior as well as other behavioral problems, compared with a representative sample of similarly aged children. This research, by investigators at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center and the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, is published in the November 2003 issue of Child Abuse & Neglect.

Parental intimate partner violence is a significant problem for many children, with at least 1.5 million U.S. children living in households where their mothers experience this type of abuse, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While previous research has indicated that these children are relatively likely to suffer a high degree of behavioral stress (such as depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviors and post-traumatic stress disorder), many of these studies are weakened by methodological problems, researchers for the current study noted. Some studies, for instance, did not control for child abuse in their analysis, or the sampled children stayed in battered women’s shelters, where disruptions in the environment may be responsible for adversely affecting the children.

The Seattle researchers studied children whose mothers were victims of police-reported or court-reported intimate partner violence between Oct. 15, 1997 and Dec. 31, 1998. Women whose children were studied had agreed to participate in research on the effects of intimate partner violence on themselves and their families. Children included in this study were between the ages of 2 and 17. Data on child mistreatment were also collected from police reports.

Using the Child Behavior Checklist, researchers found that children who had been exposed to their mother’s abuse were at twice the risk for internalizing behavior (such as depression or anxiety), 60 percent more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors (such as aggressiveness or delinquency), and 40 percent more likely to have an elevated total behavioral problem score.

Children who themselves had histories of mistreatment were at even greater risk than children exposed to maternal abuse only. Children who were exposed to their mother’s physical abuse over a longer duration of time were also found to be at significantly greater risk than children with shorter exposure periods.

“These findings provide significant evidence of an association between children’s exposure to maternal IPV [intimate partner violence], with or without a history of the children’s own mistreatment, and the occurrence of behavioral problems,” says Dr. Mary Kernic, a UW assistant professor of epidemiology and principal investigator for the study. “Our results indicate that appropriate attention to the mental health needs of these children is strongly warranted.”

In addition to Kernic, the investigators were Drs. Marsha Wolf, formerly of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center; Victoria Holt, UW professor of epidemiology; Barbara McKnight, professor of biostatistics; Colleen Huebner, associate professor of health services, and Fred Rivara, professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of epidemiology.

The study was supported by a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.