Looking At The Social Issues Of Domestic Violence Social Work Essay

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The issue of domestic violence is gaining attention at a rapid pace and so children who suffer due to their parents having issues between them have become the spotlight of media and public concern. Many researchers have vigorously studied the topic and compared pre-school children's suffering due to violence at home with other groups of children (Jouriles et al, 2001). The findings of most of the studies can be broadly classified as identifying childhood issues connected with observing violence at home and studying the elements that can enhance or curb these issues (Jouriles et al, 2001). Unfortunately the problem of domestic violence is common and spreading in all socio-economic groups. In a survey of six thousand British families, as many as 53% of the females and 70% of the males were batterers as they assaulted their partners in marriage, abused their children and confessed that the younger non-school going children were the ones who had to face the wrath most (Straus & Gelles, 2000).

This paper will focus on children who have witnessed domestic violence committed upon their mothers in their homes. Although domestic violence can be carried out by women upon men, I will be focusing on mothers being abused by their partner and the impact it has upon preschool children aged between 1-5 years. It will also look at how domestic violence affects child development: focusing on the psychological, emotional and social aspects. It has been observed that children exposed to domestic violence have diminished emotional awareness and an inability to cope with emotions or peer relations, and also display behavioral problems. The main aim of this paper is to extend upon the understanding of the existing literature on the impact of domestic violence on the physical, social and psychological development of pre-school children.


Most of the research in this area has found that pre-school children (1-5 years) suffer more trauma and other dissociative signs compared to children living in peaceful homes (Rossman, 1998). Moreover, they can be characterized as having less self-esteem, social confidence and elevated levels of anxiety and depression in comparison with children living without any sort of domestic violence (Hughes, 1998). Levendosky and Bermann (1998) observed in their research that pre-school children who suffered abuse or violence at home had more behavioral issues, had negative impact, replied despairingly and less aptly to circumstances, showed signs of aggression among peers, and had more undecided relations with mentors and teachers when started schooling as compared to normal families' children. Another research by Hughes (1998) found that both school going and pre-school children were typically vulnerable to violence at home. A common issue with all research in this domain is that it faces design issues as studies often incorporate small sample populations and may lack ethnic diversity. Moreover, there have been no studies using mediating variables to study their influence in the behaviors of these children to find out about the emotional adjustment potential in domestically violent families.

Research by McCloskey, Koss (2005) evaluated different parenting styles which were rated by mothers, along with good and negative maternal functioning which were rated by children. They found that family support, which serves as a very important factor in the healthy growth of any individual, was lacking in violent families. If any support did exist, it still completely failed to protect these young pre-school children from the violence taking place at home. Similarly, Levendosky and Graham-Bermann (2000) discovered that physical abuse or even psychological abuse by any of the parents predicted that there would be less warmth and affection shown by the mothers in any behavioral observation study. Another study regarding effective parenting of pre-school children by Graham-Bermann and Levendosky (1998) established that compared to battered mothers, mothers who belonged to peaceful homes rated themselves as being better and more effective parents.

Many of the studies conceptualize that pre-school children belonging to violent families have insecure attachment styles and they feel more neglected and abused. Marital conflict further lowers the attachment that these young children may experience with either or both of their parents (Frosch, Mangelsdorf, & McHale, 2000). Negative stressful happenings in a woman's life, maternal trauma, and lack of social support are other factors that have a vital impact on the functioning of battered mothers of pre-school age children. Belsky (1894) proposed an ecological model of parenting and these factors are coherent to that model also. He established that support and contextual stress can have a deep impact on the style of parenting either directly or indirectly via its effects on the parents' psychological functioning.

Most of these studies are dependent on maternal reports for pre-school age children in domestically violent households which to a certain extent does bias the results and findings on ground of social desirability, baffled observations and low self-worth. A solution to this is observational studies as they tend to generate data that may not be gained from reports by mothers on their own (Markman, Leber, Cordova, & Peters, 2005).

Understanding Domestic Violence

In order to understand the impact of domestic violence on pre-school children, it is first important to understand the term domestic violence itself. The term has gained a lot of recognition in the past few years. It is also important to understand that some individuals will suffer more owing to their set of circumstances. But broadly speaking domestic violence has detrimental effects on children, families, and on society as a whole. It includes abuse; physical, sexual, psychological, abuse to property or priced possessions, pets etc. (Ganley, 1999). It can increase to a degree where it may be labeled as life-threatening for the victims and can leave them in a state of depression, horror, pain, helplessness etc. Physical abuse means any act that involves purposeful use of power/ force against the body of the other individual that results or may pose a risk of harm, pain or in severe cases, injury or even death (Dutton, 2002). Such actions may range from, but are not limited to slapping, pushing, using any object to hurt, inducing undesirable objects in body, twisting and in extreme forms use of a weapon. Another form of abuse is sexual which is where intercourse or intimacy is forced upon the individual against her/his will. This covers oral, vaginal or anal intercourse, forcing to one to go nude, or any other form of unwanted sexual act (Dutton, 2004). Psychological abuse - which is most difficult to tell apart- is making an individual live under circumstances such that he/she loses self- esteem and confidence, use of abusive words, threats to life and/or property, threats to isolate, economic mistreatment and all other forms of emotional abuse.

Attachment theory strongly advocates that a young child's relationship with its key care-taker, which is the mother in most cases, becomes internalized and serves as a foundation for all relationships in his/her future life (Bowlby, 1998). Secure vs. insecure attachment styles are understood as a manner of behavioral expression of the inner demonstrations of the mother (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 2005). A mother's parenting style and her psychological functioning both greatly influence a pre-school child (Egeland & Farber, 2004). A lot of researchers, using all sorts of population samples, have proven the fact that the attachment style forecasts the emotional and social behaviors of the child (Carlson & Sroufe, 2005). Therefore, attachment theory strongly favors the mother-child relationship to be a healthy one as it shapes the future behavior of the child.

. The parenting style, the mother's psychological functioning and the child's attachment are regarded as basic building blocks of any child-mother association. Furthermore, these factors are considered to have a mediating influence on the effects of violence at home for pre-school children. In Erel and Burman's (2005) review, they established that hostility and arguments between the parents may have a negative impact on their relations with their children. Also, there is ample proof that domestic violence puts a lot of stress on pre-school child who has no choice but to witness the happenings without any say in stopping or controlling them (Downey & Coyne, 2000).

Possible Symptoms of Domestic Violence in Pre-School Children

As opposed to the school going children, pre-school age children usually have much more capability to understand and pick up negative emotions, that is, they verbalize more. Also, apart from the typical childhood issues like eating problems, sleep disorders etc., these younger children may also lose interest in social engagements, have a low or no concept of self, may suffer from detachment and withdrawal from peer associations and may be rebellious in nature too. They may exhibit temper tantrums, be irritable, lash out on objects, be cruel to pets or be abusive to their peers.

Behavioral and emotional issues

The way pre-school age children function and act is an area which has been extensively researched and hence the problems that may arise when they are suffering from domestic violence are well-documented. Pre-school children who witnessed violence at home were found to be more anxious and to show signs of anger, depression, and temperament problems etc. compared to children coming from normal families. Peer-associations, self-control and in general low competence also appeared in the children from violent or abusive households. Another serious aspect of experiencing childhood violence is the inclination to violence by these children themselves. Social learning theory also points out that pre-school age children who suffer domestic violence will learn how to implement, apply, or use violence themselves. Singer (1998) studied more than two thousand children and discovered that exposure to violence at an early age at home was a major contributing factor to a child's own violent behavior.

Cognitive functioning and attitudes

Numerous studies have tried to assess the link between witnessing domestic violence and cognitive developmental problems. They were not able to establish differences in academic capabilities between the children who witnessed domestic violence and others but they found more exposure to violence was connected with lower cognitive functions (Mathias, 2005). One of the most naïve forms of experiencing domestic violence is that the child at such an early stage identifies violence as a means to resolve issues and command. Jaffe, Wilson and Wolfe (2006) found that pre-school age children's exposure to adult conflicts and violence leads them to shift in their own attitudes justifying their use of violence. They develop a belief that aggression increases their self-image and say in matters. There is a slight gender difference however, as girls tend to adopt this approach less than boys do (Carlson, 2001).

Longer-term problems

There are other long term problems that appear due to exposure to domestic violence at an early age. Most of the researchers focus on the impact of recent witnessing of violence upon child behaviors. Silvern (2005) studied more than five hundred under-graduate students and found that adult causes of depression, anxiety and stress could be traced back to their childhood exposure to violence. In women he found symptoms of low self-image and depression. Being a victim of domestic violence was also found to be independent of the variance that was taken into account by either the presence of alcohol abuse by parents or parental divorce.


There are two main categories of research method: qualitative and quantitative. While a qualitative research method is preferred for assessing participants' views and opinions through interviews, the quantitative research design is best suited for collecting a lot of statistical data through questionnaire based surveys (Bonoma, 2003). The research work will help understand the needs of pre-school age children which will ultimately lead to the formulation of strategies for adoption of better family units. A literature review of domestic violence in the family will enable the author to compare the literature that has been published on the subject previously.

The research method is a valuable tool in building and growing knowledge of a topic, as a thorough review of past research and developments not only provides the required insights and knowledge capital, but also makes it more possible to ensure that the resulting research builds on past activities. The main objective of this research is to carefully evaluate the extent of damage that domestic violence has on pre-school age children.

The reason for a literature review is to acquire a careful knowledge of the area at issue. Saunders et al (2000) define research as: "a structured inquiry that utilises acceptable scientific methodology to solve problems and creates new knowledge that is generally applicable".

According to Saunders et al (2000) the researcher should not regard the more structured techniques as better or in some way more scientific simply because they lend themselves to quantitative analysis, or because many studies go from the qualitative to the quantitative as understanding progresses.

Saunders et al (2000) mentioned that "research method is the systematic and orderly approach taken towards the collection and analysis of data, so that information can be obtained from those data." In order to carry out a research study, several methods are undertaken such as business research and management project work.

Qualitative data

There are two main approaches in implementing a research project; they are 'Quantitative research' and 'Qualitative research'. Qualitative data is data based on meanings spoken through words. As established, one of the generally widespread methods for qualitative data compilation is personal interviews, which is also one of the most demanding research methods. 

Choice of Topic

This dissertation will be based on trends of domestic violence patterns and its influence on pre-school children. Carter, W states [online] "It is imperative that both you and your advisor are interested in your dissertation topic" (Batdorf, 2003). The author finds this topic both interesting and persuasive enough to sustain further research. Staying on top of the current debates in domestic violence and its impact on children in regards to what does and doesn't work will allow the author to identify the gaps in knowledge. After identifying the gaps, there is the need to figure out is what kinds of information will fill these gaps. The author has developed a great interest in family issues and has developed a better understanding of the topic.


Children also experience specific problems that are unique to their social, psychological development and well-being. When pre-school children are exposed to violence they often experience trouble in forming bonds with their parents and in some instances may even fail to strive and thrive. It is important to note here that there are always limitations in children studies of such young age groups. Pre-school children tend to regress in their growth and development patterns and/or experience sleep, eating disorders. When these children grow up their problems often increase to a stage where they start having trouble developing peer connections, and face academic issues and emotional instability. There is a risk for teen dating violence also. Research has shown that adults who were exposed to domestic violence as young children suffer from trauma and depression late in life also. Such children may also interact less, or with less affection, with their mothers, have shorter attention spans or optimistic feelings and moreover have fewer verbal interactions if they ever witnessed assaults upon their mothers.

Factors Affecting the Degree of Problems Connected With Domestic Violence

There is an intricate and interrelated web of factors that influence the extent to which a child may be affected by domestic violence. I shall, based on the literature review, discuss some of the factors now.

Abused and witnessing children

Being abused or seeing someone being abused, both prove to be significantly detrimental to the well-being of a child. In a study by Hughes (1999) he studied both children who were abused/ suffered violence and children who watched someone else in their close circle being abused, with other children who belonged to peaceful and healthy families. He found that pre-school age children who were abused and also witnessed violence and abuse were the ones with most behavioral and other problems. The other group of children who had just experienced violence/abuse to someone else showed lesser signs of problems and the last group who came from normal families showed the least number of signs for problem behaviors.

Child characteristics

Some research points to different effects upon pre-school age children subjected to domestic violence, depending upon their gender. Boys at that tender age are prone to develop problems such as becoming aggressive or hostile, whereas girls exhibit more internal problems like depression (Carlson, 2001). There are other findings that support this trend (Spaccarelli, 2004). Also in the pre-school age group children belonging to different age levels, show different responses when exposed to domestic violence. Children in the pre-school age group, owing to their complete dependence on their parents and the fact that they are at home to witness the happenings, show the most problems of any age group (Hughes, 1998).

Time since exposure to domestic violence

As is obvious, the more time that had passed between experiencing violent events at home, the lesser the impact that was seen in the individual. Wolfe, Zak (2006) conceptualized that more social difficulties are present in children who live in shelter homes than children who had been there at any time in the past. The impact of instant chaos may for some time elevate the child's issues as found in shelter home settings.


The extensive literature review above suggests that domestic violence seriously impairs the development of children. Pre-school age children are at the mercy of their parents for their development and well-being. They do not have the option of choosing what they want or not. Since the impact of domestic violence lingers on in life and haunts people even when they are adults, it becomes the duty of parents to ensure that they provide a healthy environment for their child to blossom. Intervention policies should be drafted and should focus on extra support and providing resources to these women to deal with the violence in their lives and the effects that it has on their mental and physical health. Moreover, steps should be taken to provide them with ways to safely and without any scene leave their homes if they wish to, instead of isolating children from mothers in unstable and violent households.

A serious limitation of the observations in most of the research reviewed in this paper is the focus on the mother's parenting role only. Parenting styles of fathers also have an impact on children and their well-being. However, including fathers in any research on domestic violence will seriously affect the quality as then the responses might not be honest and they may also hinder their families from being evaluated in the first place. Lastly, domestic violence manifests its destructive effects in a child the moment he/she is exposed to it and lingers on to haunt him/her for the remainder of life. Interventions should begin and should focus on building healthy family units, and if that is not possible then they should at least encourage healthy links between the child and the mother in the pre-school years with the aim of a more solid and firm positive society.