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Life experiences of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children

Dissertation
Author: Joan L. Benz
Abstract:
In recent years there has been an increase in awareness about domestic violence. With this new awareness have come concerns about the children who witness violence between their parents or intimate caregivers and how it will affect them in adulthood. Several research studies have documented the negative effects on individuals who witness domestic violence. These negative effects include depression, post traumatic stress syndrome, behavior problems in childhood, and increased risk for becoming a perpetrator or victim of abuse in their adult relationships. While there are numerous studies on the effects to children and some studies of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children, the majority of the studies have been quantitative in nature. This study used a qualitative, phenomenological approach to gain more in-depth information about the phenomenon of witnessing domestic violence from the adults who experienced it as children. The study sample consisted of 8 females and 2 males between the ages of 25-62. Two participants were Caucasian, 7 were African American and one was Mexican/Caucasian. Two interviews were conducted with each participant about their childhood memories, their adult relationships and their mental health. Several themes emerged including, (1) reports of aggression toward men, (2) abusive relationships in adulthood, (3) perceptions about their mother's role in the violence, (4) current healthy relationships (5) some mental health problems, (6) how they healed from their experiences. This study provided a closer look at what these participants experienced and how it impacted their lives. Results indicated that even though several of the participants went through difficult periods in their early adulthood, the majority of the participants came to a place of healing. They renewed relationships with their parents and came to terms with the past. The youngest participant continued to struggle the most. All of the participants felt rewarded by taking part in the study and offered their perceptions about why domestic violence happens. The results were compared to the existing literature, research, clinical and policy implications were discussed, and limitations of the study were identified. Personal reflections of the researcher were also included.

vii TABLE OF CONTENTS List of Tables .......................................................................................................................x CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTION Definition of Terms .................................................................................4 Domestic Violence ...........................................................................4 Exposure to Domestic Violence.......................................................5 Parents ..............................................................................................6 Post traumatic Stress Disorder .........................................................6 Theoretical Perspectives..........................................................................7 Social Learning Theory....................................................................7 Locus of Control Theory ................................................................10 Learned Helplessness Theory ........................................................12 Systems Theory ..............................................................................15 Feminist Theory .............................................................................17 Need for Study ......................................................................................20 Focus of Study ......................................................................................21 Statement of Problem .....................................................................21 Research Design.............................................................................22

CHAPTER II: LITERATURE REVIEW

Purpose ..................................................................................................23 Researcher Bias .....................................................................................23 Definition of Witnessing Domestic Violence .......................................28 Effects of Witnessing Domestic Violence ............................................30 Mental Health Issues/Behavior Problems for Children .................30 Internalizations about Domestic Violence .....................................36 Effects on Adults............................................................................40 Intergenerational Transmission of Partner Violence.............................42 Social Learning Theory..................................................................49 Conclusion ............................................................................................52

CHAPTER III: METHODOLOGY Purpose ..................................................................................................54 Qualitative Study Design ......................................................................54 Husserlian Descriptive Phenomenology ...............................................55 Data Collection......................................................................................57 Sampling and Selection..................................................................57 Recruitment ....................................................................................59 Interviews .......................................................................................60 Interviewer’s Credentials ...............................................................64 Data Analysis ........................................................................................65 Trustworthiness .....................................................................................68 Ethical Issues .........................................................................................69 Confidentiality/informed consent ..................................................69

viii

Risk to participants and risk management .....................................71

CHAPTER IV: RESULTS Participants ............................................................................................75 Nicole .............................................................................................75 Katie ...............................................................................................75 Deneen ...........................................................................................76 Karen ..............................................................................................76 Ms. T ..............................................................................................76 Joe ..................................................................................................76 Sharon ............................................................................................77 Danielle ..........................................................................................77 Reesce ............................................................................................77 Mikey .............................................................................................78 Analysis .................................................................................................78 Findings .................................................................................................81 Category I. Memories of witnessing domestic violence ......................81 Theme 1: Extreme emotions as they witnessed the violence ........83 Theme 2: What they heard and saw during the violence ..............85 Theme 3: Becoming involved in the violence ..............................86 Theme 4: Being torn with feelings about their mother .................88 Category II: Impact of childhood experiences on adult relationships..93 Theme 1: Aggression toward men ................................................94 Theme 2: Abusive relationships....................................................95 Theme 3: Never want to be abusive or be abused ........................97 Theme 4: Relationship with parents ...........................................102 Theme 5: Impact on siblings .......................................................106 Category III: Mental health of participants ........................................108 Theme 1: Mental health symptoms .............................................108 Theme 2: Other problems related to childhood experiences ......112 Theme 3: What might have helped them as children ..................113 Theme 4: Healing from their experience ....................................114 Category IV: Reflections of the participants .....................................116 Theme 1: Reasons for participating in this study ........................116 Theme 2: Perceptions about why domestic violence happens ....117 Control ..................................................................................117 Lack of training .....................................................................118 Acceptable behavior or learned pattern ................................118 Theme 3: The interviews were a positive experience .................119 Individual profiles ...............................................................................121 Sharon ..........................................................................................121 Reesce ..........................................................................................123 Summary .............................................................................................126

CHAPTER V: DISCUSSION Discussion of Findings ........................................................................131

ix Participants ...................................................................................132 Emotions connected to witnessing violence ................................135 Systems Theory ....................................................................137 Exposure to domestic violence ....................................................139 Perceptions of parents ..................................................................140 Mother’s role ........................................................................140 Learned Helplessness Theory ........................................141 Locus of Control Theory ...............................................142 Father’s role ..........................................................................146 Feminist Theory .............................................................148 Aggression ...................................................................................151 Intergenerational transmission of abuse.......................................152 Social Learning Theory ........................................................156 Mental Health...............................................................................159 Post traumatic stress disorder/syndrome ..............................163 Differences based on culture and other factors ............................167 Healing from their experiences ....................................................171 Perceptions about why domestic violence happens .....................174 Personal Reflections ............................................................................176 Implications/Recommendations ..........................................................179 Research implications ..................................................................180 Clinical implications ....................................................................182 Policy implications.......................................................................183 Limitations of study ............................................................................184 Conclusion ..........................................................................................186

Appendix A: .............................................................................................................188 Appendix B: .............................................................................................................189 Appendix C: .............................................................................................................190 Appendix D: .............................................................................................................191 Appendix E: .............................................................................................................196 Appendix F: .............................................................................................................197 Appendix G: .............................................................................................................198

References .............................................................................................................201

Vita Auctoris .............................................................................................................207

x List of Tables

Table 1: Profile of participants ...................................................................................74 Table 2: Categories and themes ..................................................................................82

1

CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION

It is estimated that approximately 17.8 million children worldwide are expos ed to domestic violence each year (Saltzman, Holden, & Holahan, 2005), and approximately 3.2 million documented cases of American children witness domestic violence annua lly (Stiles, 2002). In 2004 law enforcement agencies in Missouri reported 39,097 incidents of domestic violence, which is the highest reported incidence of domestic violence in t he state of Missouri since 1999 (Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence {MCADV}, 2009). Many of these incidents of violence were witnessed by children (Stiles , 2002; MCADV, 2000, 2009).

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in public awarenes s of domestic violence, and as a result, many new programs and services have been developed for victims of such abuse (MCADV, 2000, 2009; Saltzman et al., 2005; Stiles, 2002). While many victims of domestic violence are now able to leave the abusive home and obtain resources that help them begin again, some victims, particularly women, make the decision to stay in the home. This decision to remain in such a volatile environment is based on a variety of reasons, including financial difficulties, emotional atta chment to the abuser, low self-esteem, the desire to have two parents to raise the children, f ear and the belief that they cannot escape the abuse (Feerick & Haugaard, 1999; MCADV, 2000; Stith et al., 2000).

2 I have a strong personal connection to this research based on my own experiences as a victim of domestic violence for over 22 years. I made the decision to stay in this volatile relationship mostly out of fear for my safety if I left and the sa fety of my three small sons. It was only when two of my sons had reached adulthood and my youngest son was 16 that I was able to find a shelter to help me escape the abusive situati on. I have often wondered how this experience of witnessing domestic violence has affec ted my own sons now that they are adults. Although my sons appear to be doing well, it is difficult for them to discuss their painful memories with me. In addition to my personal experiences with domestic violence, I currently w ork as a family therapist at Family Resource Center, a non-profit agency whos e mission is to help children and families experiencing violence. I work with many battered w omen, children who have witnessed violence, children who were sexually and/or physically

abused and couples seeking help with their intimate relationships. I also work with individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depre ssion, anxiety disorders and other mental health issues. My passion since leaving my husband in 1997 has been to more fully understand the phenomenon of domestic violence and to help other victims of such abuse. I present workshops on the dynamics of domestic violence, and I often share my story at various

venues, such as church groups, women’s groups and graduate classes in social work. I also work as a therapist in private practice at Creve Coeur Counseling Ass ociates, seeing clients who have the same types of problems as described above. My work with cli ents who have or are currently victims of violence is often heart-wrenching and diff icult,

3 especially when a victim is unable to leave the abusive situation and children are

involved. The decision by victims to remain in the home where domestic violence is present

has led to an increasing concern for children who witness such violence and how that w ill affect them in their adulthood (Feerick & Haugaard, 1999; MCADV, 2000, 2009; Skybo, 2005). Children caught in this situation are often removed from the home when the abuse is directed toward them, but it is not always possible or feasible to remove chil dren who are merely witnesses to the abuse between their parents (Carter, Weidthor n, & Behrman, 1999; Findlater & Kelly, 1999; MCADV, 2000, 2009; Skybo, 2005). In extreme cases of domestic violence, Child Protective Services (CPS) has insisted the abuser m ust leave the home before the children can be returned. However, most of these cases are broug ht to the attention of CPS due to direct abuse to the children. One of the key questions CPS has posed when establishing policies with regard to domestic violence is whether a c hild witnessing domestic violence with no direct abuse to the child constitutes child abuse or

neglect (Findlater & Kelly, 1999; MCADV, 2000, 2009; Skybo, 2005). Additionally, CPS is concerned about their ability to handle all the new cases that would be generat ed from such a definition (Findlater & Kelly, 1999; Skybo, 2005). This inability and uncertainty about whether to remove the children from homes in which domestic violence is present has led to concerns about how children are affected by witnessing dome stic violence and what interventions or preventions can diminish the violence in the home and reduce the harmful effects on children, as well as how these individuals can be helped when they reach adulthood and have relationships of their own (Feerick & Haugaard, 1999; Findlater & Kelly, 1999; MCADV, 2000, 2009; Skybo, 2005).

4 There is significant research about the effects on children witnessing domesti c violence (Alexander, McDonald, & Paton, 2005; Cappell & Heiner, 1990; Carlson, 2000; Dejonghe, Bogat, Levendosky, Von Eye, & Davidson II, 2005; Holtrop et al., 2004; Lemmey et al., 2004; Salcido, Weithorn & Behrman, 1999; Skybo, 2005; Stiles, 2002; Stith, Smith, Penn, Ward, & Tritt, 2004; Stith et al., 2000). In addition to research on children, there is limited research available on adults who witnessed domestic violence as children (Feerick & Haugaard, 1999; Jeyaseelan et al., 2004; Lemmey et al., 2004; Stith et al., 2000; Skybo, 2005). Most of the available research, however, is quantitative in nature and does not provide an in-depth view of the experiences of adults who witnessed violence between their parents. Therefore, this study will use a descriptive , phenomenological approach to examine the life experiences of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the im pact that witnessing domestic violence has on an adult’s life. While this study focused on the experiences of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children, it was important to understand how these individuals may have been affected as children. Therefore, this chapter includes information about the eff ects on children who witnessed domestic violence. Definition of Terms Domestic Violence The term domestic violence usually refers to violence between intimate part ners, which includes the use of control tactics, such as intimidation, verbal abuse, physical

abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and other forms of domination and control. It includes a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors that an adult uses against a partner

5 (MCADV, 2000, 2009). When such domestic violence becomes a part of the relationship, the abuser and victim no longer share equal rights and responsibilities within the partnership (MCADV, 2009; Skybo, 2005; Stith et al., 2004). A significant part of the domestic violence cycle is the psychological and emotional abuse used by the perpetrator. The psychological abuse becomes a very effective weapon for controlling the victim because of the knowledge that the abuser will back up the threats with physical assaults if necessary. This serves to break dow n the confidence and self-esteem of the victim and can be as equally damaging as t he physical part of domestic violence (MCADV, 2000, 2009; Skybo, 2005; Stith et al., 2004). While domestic violence usually means violence between partners, the term family violence is often used to include abuse between other family members, such as child abuse by parents, sibling abuse, and elder abuse (Salcido et al., 1999). Exposure to domestic violence The terms exposure to domestic violence and witnessing domestic

violence

are often used interchangeably, but recently researchers have used witnessing domestic violence to refer to a child merely being present in the room when the violence occurs. On the other hand, exposure to domestic violence indicates children experiencing the full range of domestic violence, which includes verbal abuse, seeing the injuries to a pa rent, or trying to interrupt the violence (Salcido et al., 1999). This research used the term witnessing domestic violence to indicate that the child was present in the room and saw physical violence taking place between his/her parents.

6 Parents This study used the term parents to indicate the intimate caregivers re sponsible for the raising of the child. This can include step-parents, unmarried partners, grandparents or other relatives, and gay and lesbian parents. Post traumatic Stress Disorder A large majority of domestic violence victims experience Post Traumati c Stress Disorder (PTSD), and research is emerging that indicates children ex posed to domestic violence also develop PTSD (Skybo, 2005). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is thought to develop in response to psychological trauma, such as experiencing physical, em otional or sexual abuse or witnessing a traumatic event that threatens to cause gra ve physical harm (American Psychiatric Association {APA}, 2000; Schnurr, Lunney, & Seng upta, 2004). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (APA, 2000) lists the following diagnostic symptoms and criteria for PTSD: •

Exposure to a traumatic event •

Persistent re-experiencing the trauma through flashback and nightmares •

Avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma •

Increased arousal as exhibited by difficulty falling or staying aslee p, anger and hyper vigilance •

Increased startle response •

Duration of symptoms for more than 1 month •

Significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

7 The traumatic event or stressor consists of two parts, both of which must be present for a diagnosis of PTSD: 1. “the person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others” (APA, 2000, p. 468). 2. “the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror” (APA, 2000, p. 468). Individuals suffering from PTSD often re-experience the traumatic event in s ome way. As a result they tend to avoid places, people or other things that remind them of t he event, and they are very sensitive to normal life experiences. Certain situat ions or circumstances easily trigger a memory of the traumatic experience causing the person to experience the same level of anxiety and fear that was experienced at the t ime of the trauma (Saltzman et al., 2005; Schnurr et al., 2004; Seligman & Maier, 1967). Theoretical Perspectives Social Learning Theory Research has shown that children witnessing domestic violence often become abusers or victims of domestic violence in adulthood (Cappell & Heiner, 1990; Feerick &

Haugaard, 1999; Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998; Stith et al., 2000). The social learning theory may help to explain how witnessing domestic violence as children perpetuat es such violence in their adult relationships (Cappell & Heiner, 1990; Bandura, 1977; Feerick & Haugaard, 1999). The social learning theory, also known as observationa l learning theory, postulates that domestic violence is learned (Bandura, 1977; Fee rick & Haugaard, 1999). Research studies support the findings that intergenerational

8 transmission of abuse occurs when children (boys in particular) are the victims of physical abuse or are witnesses to the abuse of other family members (C appell & Heiner, 1990; Simons et al., 1998; Stith et al., 2000). Social learning theory maintains that individuals observe the behavior of others , especially the contingencies that follow a person’s actions in a particular s ituation, and then emulate these actions in a similar situation (Bandura, 1973, 1977; Simons et al., 1998). This is different than merely copying or imitating what is witnessed. Ra ther, an individual emulates only those actions that lead to positive consequences and does not emulate those that lead to something undesirable (Bandura, 1973, 1977; Simons et al., 1998). In the case of domestic violence, abusers often obtain results that are positive for them (i.e., compliance of the victim to demands) by the use of threats and violence (MCADV, 2000). Although many children may not initially observe positive consequences when they witness violence between their parents, the end result often leads them to c onclude that physical violence is sometimes a necessary and effective strate gy for achieving behavioral change in an intimate relationship (Bandura, 1977; Simons et al., 1998). Children often perceive this compliance on the part of the victim as the abuser alway s wins and/or there is nothing the victim can do to stop him (Alexander et al., 2005; Simons et al., 1998; Skybo, 2005). These attitudes developed in childhood through their exposure to domestic violence may likely transition into their adult experiences and may at least partially explain the perpetuation of domestic violence for both perpet rators and victims through generations (Cappell & Heiner, 1990; Moffitt & Caspi, 1998; Sti th et al., 2004).

9 A closer examination of social learning theory more fully explains how expos ure to domestic violence often leads children to repeat the behaviors in their own relationships in adulthood. Bandura (1973, 1977) originally formulated his theory on social learning in a four-step pattern that combines a cognitive view and an oper ant view of learning (Huitt, 2004). It is Bandura’s contention that the mind, behavior, and environment all play a role in the learning process. The four steps are: 1.

Attention: various factors increase or decrease attention to a particular e vent, such as sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement . 2.

Retention: remembering what was observed during attention, which includes symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehears al and motor rehearsal. 3.

Reproduction: reproduction of the image. 4.

Motivation: having a reason to imitate a behavior, such as imagined incentives. (Bandura, 1977; Huitt, 2004). Bandura (1973, 1977) further describes what he calls “reciprocal determinism” in that the world and a person’s behavior cause each other, while behaviorism states that one’s environment causes one’s behavior. Children witnessing domestic violence learn to be violent or to accept violence based on what they have observed. Some of the symbolic coding identified in the Alexander et al. (2005) study indicates that children begin to believe that the abuser has power over the victim a nd that there is nothing the victim can do to stop the abuse. They identify the fact that the victi m complies with the wishes of the abuser through the use of, or threats of, violence. Alexander et al. (2005) noted an internalization of domestic violence by both male s and

10 females in the belief that the victim deserves what he or she gets and c annot stop the abuser (learned helplessness). Children believe the abuser has power over his/ her victim. Some children, males in particular, identified with the power and control of the abuse r. Through retention of these images as described by Bandura (1977), children often begin to reproduce these images into behaviors similar to the abuse they have witnessed. The re is motivation to gain power and control through the use of violence and force. Additionally, there is motivation by others faced with abuse to just give up because of the retained images that there is nothing the victim can do, and it is safer and bette r to give up (Alexander et al., 2005; Bandura, 1973, 1977). Locus of control theory

While social learning theory explains how individuals learn through observing the behavior of others, locus of control is a term in psychology which refers to a person’s belief about the causes of good or bad results in one’s life. It also refers to “the extent to which individuals believe they can influence events through their own actions” (Gal e, Batty, & Deary, 2008, p. 397). This theory focuses on the nature of reinforcement in terms of rewards and punishments. Some people believe that rewards originate from

within, or internally from their own efforts and abilities. Individuals with a high i nternal locus of control assume their efforts will be successful, have better control ove r their behavior, and have higher self-esteem. They are more likely to attempt to inf luence other people

than

those with an external locus of control. People with an external locus of control believe rewards originate externally from situations, chance or oth er more powerful people (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). Thus, when experiencing negative life events, people with a high external locus of control often have t he attitude

11 that the world is against them and that there is nothing they can do to change that fact

(Schultz & Schultz, 2005). These individuals have low self-esteem and are less motivated. They often experience more depression and other mental health problems than individuals with a high internal locus of control (Peterson et al., 1993; Schultz & Schultz, 2005). An example of how internal and external locus of control works would be in an educational setting. Individuals who have an internal locus of control perspective wil l study and assume their efforts will help them achieve a higher grade. Those who have a n external locus of control, however, may leave their grade to chance or believe tha t a poor grade is the result of the teacher designing bad tests or not liking them. Thus, thes e children with an external locus of control may be less likely to study for the tes t because they believe it is not something within their control anyway (Schultz & Schult z, 2005). The development of locus of control is associated with family style, stabilit y and experiences with efforts leading to reward. Many individuals with an internal locus of control have grown up in families that modeled these internal beliefs and emphasi ze effort, education, responsibility and thinking. Parents with children who have a high internal locus of control were found to be more supportive and more consistent in their self-discipline. In contrast, people with an external locus of control are typic ally associated with families of lower socioeconomic status because poorer pe ople often have less control over their lives. People in societies with a high level of social unr est often develop a higher level of external locus of control based on the expectancy of being “ out of control” (Schultz & Schultz, 2005).

Full document contains 223 pages
Abstract: In recent years there has been an increase in awareness about domestic violence. With this new awareness have come concerns about the children who witness violence between their parents or intimate caregivers and how it will affect them in adulthood. Several research studies have documented the negative effects on individuals who witness domestic violence. These negative effects include depression, post traumatic stress syndrome, behavior problems in childhood, and increased risk for becoming a perpetrator or victim of abuse in their adult relationships. While there are numerous studies on the effects to children and some studies of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children, the majority of the studies have been quantitative in nature. This study used a qualitative, phenomenological approach to gain more in-depth information about the phenomenon of witnessing domestic violence from the adults who experienced it as children. The study sample consisted of 8 females and 2 males between the ages of 25-62. Two participants were Caucasian, 7 were African American and one was Mexican/Caucasian. Two interviews were conducted with each participant about their childhood memories, their adult relationships and their mental health. Several themes emerged including, (1) reports of aggression toward men, (2) abusive relationships in adulthood, (3) perceptions about their mother's role in the violence, (4) current healthy relationships (5) some mental health problems, (6) how they healed from their experiences. This study provided a closer look at what these participants experienced and how it impacted their lives. Results indicated that even though several of the participants went through difficult periods in their early adulthood, the majority of the participants came to a place of healing. They renewed relationships with their parents and came to terms with the past. The youngest participant continued to struggle the most. All of the participants felt rewarded by taking part in the study and offered their perceptions about why domestic violence happens. The results were compared to the existing literature, research, clinical and policy implications were discussed, and limitations of the study were identified. Personal reflections of the researcher were also included.