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Internalization And Social Learning Theory Young People Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5457 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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According to research, the effects of inter-partner violence witnessed by the child or young person can cause significant internalized behaviours, whereby the emotional and psychological effects of the violence have caused common problems including anxiety, [1] social withdrawal [2] and depression [3] for children and young people.

It is of our own ignorance that some people choose to presume that a child is ‘just’ being quiet rather than experiencing significant stress and emotional problems (Calder 2004:57). It is this ignorance that increases the child’s felt isolation alongside their psychological and emotional disturbances. It is arguable that the lack of mature coping strategies a child has, alongside the failure of others to recognise when a child needs help, is what puts them at greater risk of experiencing such traumatic and indeed clinical behaviours. For example, Davis and Carlson (1987) [4] found in their study regarding children of ‘battered’ women that 68% of preschool children and 53% of school age children in their sample had depression that was of a clinical concern. [5] 

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The internalised behaviours of depression, anxiety and social withdrawal are interestingly typical of what the abused mother (victim) often goes through (WHO 2000; Hester et al 2007; McCue 2008). According to the Home Office, 75% of domestic violence cases result in mental health consequences to women (Home Office, 2001). These behaviours are not surprising in relation the physical and emotional harm that domestic violence may cause. The victim may be fearful of when the man may next strike causing anxiety. Depression may come from thoughts and feelings that they can’t get themselves and their children out of the abusive home. Furthermore, the stress, anxiety and depression caused by their situation may lead them to avoid social environments, withdrawing themselves from anything which may lead them to be noticed, questioned, embarrassed or shamed.

One may question however, how do these behaviours in the child occur? When analysing the environment the child is subjected to, the reasons for why they may have symptoms of depression, anxiety and social withdrawal become apparent:


Constant reminders around their home may keep them anxious and fearful of when the violence may next occur; there may be broken furniture, blood stained carpets/walls as well as other reminders around the home, even cuts and bruises physically apparent on their parent, signifying the child’s lack of control. [6] 


The child is silent and withdrawn. They will have learnt that silence and not being outspoken is the best way to behave if they don’t want to get beaten or they do not want to see or hear their mothers beaten. This can be taught verbally and/or visually through associative learning means. [7] (Lieberman 2000:41-55). For example if they witness their father repeatedly violating their mother there are two responses; the mother stays quiet and does not respond-the consequence maybe that the father does not continue to be violent, the atmosphere may calm. The second response may consist of a volatile reaction from the mother, screams, shouts and/or crying-the consequence is that their father will continue to violate. Therefore the child learns and associates that being loud, outspoken and overtly emotional will increase the violence, so the child may become quiet and withdrawn with the hope that the violence will reduce.


The depression may stem from their insignificance, their silence, their feeling of powerlessness and the feelings of guilt for not protecting their mother. Feelings of powerlessness and guilt may increase the child’s emotional and psychological trauma, particularly if there are no significant internal or external supports. [8] 

We can apply these behaviours to social learning theory, which is based on the principle that behaviours observed as a young person will become learned and modelled as if the behaviour they have observed is the norm. [9] For example if the normal social behaviours of an abused mother in the home involve depression, anxiety, quietness, such behaviours are likely to be modelled by the child, because of their attachment (psychological, emotional and biological) but also because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn any other behaviours. Social learning can also be applied by observing an actual activity and seeing what it achieves which is sometimes referred to as associative learning. [10] For example, children and young people who internalise their behaviours may do so because they have learnt from their parents relationship that when the mother is quiet and withdrawn the abuse is less likely to occur.

A case study which demonstrates this kind of ‘social learning’ behaviour has been highlighted by a case brought forward to the Domestic Violence Integrated Response Project (DVIRP), a support network based in the East Midlands (UK) which offers supports including the ‘Break-Thru’ programme for children aged 7-16 years who have witnessed and or experienced domestic violence. An 8 year old boy was referred to the ‘Break-Thru’ programme for therapeutic sessions after he had witnessed domestic violence. He saw his father hit his mother on a weekly basis. If he attempted to intervene his father would hit him too. Due to this the boy ‘learned’ to stay upstairs where he would hear the abuse instead. This learning process is one which demonstrates the influence in staying quiet, withdrawing from difficult situations, as arguably this boy learnt that these internalized behaviours were the best way to act in order to reduce trouble.

But what about those children who model and socially learn from the perpetrator’s behaviour? There has been significant research carried out surrounding the ‘cycle of violence’ thesis and the social learning theory of aggressive behaviour [11] (Walker 1979; Straus 1990; Grusec 1992; Bandura 1997) because there is concern that children may learn from their parent, who is the perpetrator, that using such modes of behaviour is the only means of achieving what they want (Calder 2004:23).

Effects on behaviour: Externalization and social learning theory

A significant impact on children and young people who have witnessed domestic violence considers how the child’s experience influences their externalized behaviours. [12] highlight how all but one study examining impacts of domestic violence found that children who were exposed to domestic violence on a regular basis externalised significant behavioural problems, most commonly: aggressive, hostile, disruptive and anti- social behaviours compared to children from non-violent homes, similar to that of the perpetrator (in this case the father). However one must consider that the significance of such externalised behavioural problems demonstrated in these cases will vary according to support mechanisms in place during and post domestic violence and other situational circumstances at the time of the study. For example some children and mothers were placed in refuges at the time of the studies [13] where a sudden change of home, school, friendships and adjustment to refuge living were most probable and likely to affect their behaviours differently to those who still live with the perpetrator.

Historically scientists have questioned the motivation behind aggressive behaviour. Albert Bandura (1997) [14] , in particular, proposed a social learning theory that focuses on externalised aggressive behaviour and how it can be implanted by roots of observational learning. This theory considers that when children witness adults committing violent acts this will influence children to imitate or model this violent behaviour too. [15] Similar outcomes of observational learning have been found in other studies and research surrounding the effects of domestic violence upon behaviour.

The case study regarding the 8year old boy brought forward by DVIRP, as discussed previously, highlighted that the boy displayed externalised behaviours including anger for which he had no outlet; this resulted in him copying his father’s behaviour and being aggressive by hitting his mum and breaking household possessions (Appendix 1). This case, along with other such cases which are demonstrated through research by the likes of McGee (2000) [16] and Abrahams (1994) [17] , highlight that children’s role models (parents) do heavily influence behaviours; if the child had not witnessed his father’s violent behaviour he may not have externalised aggression, he may have been able to diffuse his anger through alternative methods.

Not only do such ‘learnt’ externalised behaviours affect familial relationships, it has been suggested that children living in homes with heightened hostility are likely to resolve their own interpersonal difficulties, for example with peers, by imitating and utilizing the modes of aggression and hostility they have picked up from the home (Straus 1990) [18] , thus potentially leading them into ‘drug and alcohol abuse, running away and juvenile delinquency’. [19] Delinquency was shown in its extreme form by the media attention that surrounded the Sheffield Crown Court case on the Edlington attack where grievous bodily harm with intent was committed by two brothers aged 10 and 11. The barrister on the case implied that the two boys may have learnt such extreme violence and criminal behaviour

from their parents. The barrister highlighted that the two boys had been subject to a ‘toxic’ home life as they witnessed extreme domestic violence in the home; for example they saw their father threaten to ‘slice their mothers face to bits with a knife’ (BBC News 21/1/2010). [20] 

On the contrary one must recognise that this case is an extreme form of externalization behaviour that has influenced a criminogenic life path, but there is no clear evidence to suggest the criminal acts carried out by the two boys were the sole consequences of learnt behaviour and such behaviours are not representative of all children who have been affected by witnessing domestic violence. However those who do exhibit hostile behaviours, whether it be on a low scale level or an extreme level are likely to affect important stages of their life, including the school learning process and involvement in peer socialisation; arguably two key aspects of developing ‘the self’ during childhood. [21] 

Alongside the effects of externalised behaviours as a young person, researchers have also paid close attention to the impact of domestic violence on children and young people as they make transitions into adulthood. Many studies have found evidence for the intergenerational ‘cycle of violence’ theory which argues that adults who externalize violent and abusive behaviour have most likely witnessed violent and abusive behaviour as children [22] 23

Physical Symptoms Although children present in homes where domestic violence occurs are likely to suffer physical abuse as well, the physical effects of being the witness to domestic violence are quite different than symptoms of abuse, itself.

The physical effects of domestic violence on children can start while the fetus is present in the mother’s womb. Studies have shown that low infant birth weights are associated with both the direct physical trauma inflicted on the fetus’ mother, as well as the emotional stress that is placed on the victim of the domestic abuse. Direct physical abuse on the female victim can lead to multiple physical injuries associated with the infant child, ranging from premature birth, excessive bleeding, and even fetal death. Increased maternal stress during the times of abuse, especially when combined with smoking and drug abuse, can also lead to premature deliveries and low weight babies.[3] Infant children who are present in the home where domestic violence occurs often fall victim to being “caught in the crossfire.” They may suffer physical injuries from unintentional trauma as their parent is battered. Infants may be inconsolable and irritable, have a lack of responsiveness secondary to lacking the emotional and physical attachment to their mother, suffer from developmental delays, and have excessive diarrhea from both trauma and stress.

Physical effects of witnessing domestic violence in older children are less evident than behavioral and emotional effects. The trauma that children experience when they witness domestic violence in the home, plays a major role in their development and physical well being. The children, however, will exhibit physical symptoms associated with their behavioral or emotional problems, such as being withdrawn from those around them, becoming non-verbal, and exhibiting regressed behaviors such as being clingy and whiney. Anxiety – like behavior is also a common physical symptom in children who witness domestic violence in the home. These children harbor feelings of guilt, blame, and are constantly o

n edge. They may startle at the smallest things, such as a car door slamming or a glass cup accidentally falling to the floor. If their anxiety progresses to more physical symptoms, they may show signs of tiredness from lack of sleep and weight and nutritional changes from poor eating habits.[4]

Children who witness domestic violence in the home can suffer a tremendous amount of physical symptoms along with their emotional and behavioral state of despair. These children may complain of general aches and pain, such as headaches and stomach aches. They may also have irritable and irregular bowel habits, cold sores, and they may have problems with bedwetting. These complaints have been associated with depressive disorders in children, a common emotional effect of domestic violence. Along with these general complaints of not feeling well, children who witness domestic violence may also appear nervous, as previously mentioned, and have short attention spans. These children display some of the same symptoms as children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. On the reverse, these children may show symptoms of fatigue and constant tiredness. They may fall asleep in school due to the lack of sleep at home. Much of their night may be spent listening to or witnessing violence within the home. Children of domestic violence victims are frequently ill, and suffer from poor personal hygiene. Children who witness domestic violence also have a tendency to partake in high risk play activities, self abuse, and death by suicide.[5] Children who witness domestic may show many physical symptoms of trauma, emotional stress, and possibly, physical abuse.

Children who witness domestic violence in the home should be assessed for the physical effects of the violence by everyone around them. It is easy to see the physical injuries if the domestic violence turns into child abuse, however, the other physical findings may be difficult to evaluate. Any child who has changes in their eating habits, sleep patterns, or bowel patterns should be further examined or questioned by someone whom they trust.

Behavioral Symptoms Domestic violence in the home affects children in different ways and the children exposed to this type of violence are likely to develop behavioral problems. Domestic violence can cause children to have regression with out of control behavior.[6] When a child is a witness of domestic violence, they often imitate behaviors. Children think that violence is an acceptable behavior of intimate relationships. They may develop a sense of social acceptance to this behavior and become the abused or the abuser.

Some warning signs of domestic violence in children may be bed-wetting or having nightmares. Some children may become distrusting of adults. The child may try to act tough and have problems letting other people into their life and there are some children that may even isolate themselves from their close friends and family. Another behavioral response to domestic violence may be that the child may lie in order to avoid confrontation and excessive attention getting.

Adolescents are in jeopardy of academic failure, school drop-out, and substance abuse. Their behavior is guarded and they are secretive about their family members. They get embarrassed ajbout the home situation. Adolescents don’t like to invite friends over and they spend their free time away from home. Denial and aggression are their major forms of problem solving. Teens cope with domestic violence by blaming others, encountering violence in a relationship, or by running away from home.[7] An estimated 1/5 to 1/3 of teenagers who are involved in dating relationships are regularly abusing or being abused by their partners verbally, mentally, emotionally, sexually and/or physically. 30 to 50 percent of dating relationships can exhibit the same cycle of escalating violence in marital relationships.[8]

Emotional Symptoms About 3.3 million children are exposed to domestic violence in their homes every year.[9] Not only are these children at risk for developing physical, behavioral, and social problems, but they are prone to develop emotional problems as well.

These children often have conflicting feelings towards their parents. Feelings of distrust and affection often coexist for the abuser. The child becomes overprotective of the victim and feels sorry for them.[10] Children exposed to domestic violence often develop anxiety. They fear that they may be injured during an altercation between their parents, or even fear that their parents will abandon them. Children also worry about the safety of the parent that is being abused. Many times children fear that they are to blame for the violence that is occurring in their homes. Grief, shame, and low self esteem are common emotions that children exposed to domestic violence experience. Depression is a common problem in these children. The child often feels helpless and powerless. More girls internalize their emotions and show signs of depression than boys. Boys are more apt to act out with aggression and hostility.[11] Witnessing violence in the home can give the child the idea that nothing is safe in the world and that they are not worth being kept safe which contributes to their feelings of low self worth and depression.[12] Some children act out through anger and are more aggressive than other children. Even in situations that do not call for it, children will respond with anger.[13] Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can result in children from exposure to domestic violence. Symptoms of this are nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, increased alertness to the environment, having problems concentrating, and can lead to physical symptoms.[14] These children are not allowed a normal childhood. There is a role reversal between the child and the parent and the responsibilities of the victim who is emotionally and psychologically dysfunctional are transferred to the child. (see parentification.ua.edu)This is also known as parentification. 20,21 In this situation, the parents treat their child as a therapist or confidant, and not as their child. They are forced to mature faster than the average child. They take on household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for younger children.[15] The responsibilities that they take on are beyond normal assigned chores, and are not age appropriate. The child becomes socially isolated and is not able to participate in activities that are normal for a child their age. The parentified child is at risk for becoming involved in rocky relationships because they have been isolated and are not experienced at forming successful relationships. Also they tend to become perfectionists because they are forced to live up to such high expectations for their parents.[16]

Social Symptoms Children exposed to domestic violence frequently do not have the foundation of safety and security that is normally provided by the family. The children experience a desensitization to aggressive behavior, poor anger management and problem solving skills, and learn to engage in exploitative relationships.[17] The symptoms of children living with violence present differently at various ages of development.

School age children exposed to domestic violence present with an excessive worry of possible danger and feelings of resentment towards the perpetrating party.[10] Symptoms include isolation from friends and relatives in an effort to stay close to siblings and victimized parent.[17] Adolescent children present with a difficulty in trusting adults and engage in excessive social involvement to avoid volatile situations at home. The adolescent may display these symptoms by joining a gang or becoming involved in dating relationships that mimic the learned behavior.[17]

Children exposed to domestic violence require a safe nurturing environment and the space and respect to progress at their own pace. The caretaker should provide reassurance and an increase sense of security by providing explanations and comfort for the things that worry the children, i.e. loud noises.[10] The children should develop and maintain positive contact with significant others such as distant family members.[10] All family members are encouraged to become involved in community organization’s designed to assist families in domestic violence situations.

The behavioural effects of domestic violence on education and the school response

4.1 Overview

Education is widely accepted as to boost economic and social capital as in to maintain one’s life. It is widely understood accepted by the society that compulsory education is a must for children and young people. This is due to the system which emphasises on social skills (interacting with peers, tutors, involving in discussions), moral and cultural knowledge (through learning History, Music), organisation skills (cues in accordance, deadlines and school uniforms) and academic skills (through Maths and Science) which will be a leading path for them for a successful life path. The children who are not able to cope up with the education norms by truanting and excluding themselves will be a great concern for parents and teachers. [24] 

Domestic violence does not impose direct impact on children as per researches done, though the impacts are rather limited yet of great significance. However it has been proved relevantly that domestic violence does give negative impacts on children and young people in social settings which include school. [25] 

Pro – social behaviour is seen in children and young people when the family setting is of positive [26] and negative result is seen in those of poor family attachment and negative family relationship between child and parents. [27] 

It is agreed that children and young people of domestic violence background are more likely to be involved in negative behaviours outside home which increase the probability of school difficulties.

It is easy to say that the domestic violence impact affects the children and young people diversely when they do not conform with the education system and unable to achieve proper academic qualification. Those impacts include increased risk of later employment issues, [28] involvement in crime [29] and mental health problems. [30] It is not to discuss the current impact’s of domestic violence

After analysing the possible effects of witnessing domestic violence on the child’s behaviour

in the previous chapter, this chapter shall focus on analysing the effects that these negative

internalised and externalised behaviours have on the child’s education

Internalised and externalised behaviours: Impact on schooling


As seen earlier those children who have been affected psychologically and emotionally by domestic violence have internalised behaviours of anxiety, social withdrawal and depression, and externalised behaviours of a disruptive and aggressive nature compared to normal life leading groups. [31] 

Mostly these type of affected children and young people are not able to control their behaviour from social settings outside their home where they will have problems in adult relationship, aggressive or poor communication with peers, low rate of concentration in school and overall poor achievements in school. [32] 

The aggressiveness which shown by these group of people is the outcome of the process of domestic violence at home. Ones these children are placed outside of their home frame, they are restless of what might b happening to their abused parent while they are not present at home. This situation increases the severity where they will ill treat those people around them in schools. [33] 

‘And if [Dad] beat Mum up I would be at school thinking….What if I go home and Mum isn’t

there? What if something’s happened?’ (Hannah aged 15 in McGee 2000:80).

Internalised behaviours of fear and anxiety caused by home circumstances have been found

to affect rate of concentration and involvement in school practices (Abrahams 1994).

Children who have been traumatised and suffer from internalised behaviours are more likely

to become totally withdrawn from their class; their state of mind becomes ‘dissociated’

whereby they become completely disconnected from the environment they are in (the

classroom), which results in them missing out on large amounts of information (Cole et al

2005:37). This withdrawal may significantly hinder their academic development and success,

particularly because there is potential that educational support by some parents in an abusive

relationship is likely to be weaker than in comparable relationships affecting home study.

Externalised behaviours may also cause damage to the child or young person’s learning

process. According to Cole et al (2005:34) a traumatised child may exert aggressive or

disruptive behaviours in the classroom to their teachers and peers. While other children in the

class (and some teachers) may perceive this behaviour as troublesome and irrational, these

externalised, aggressive behaviours maybe a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Hester

et al 2007) which can often be triggered by the actions, comments or tone of peers and

teachers themselves.

‘…whenever I hear the teacher shouting, I just used to cover my ears’ cause I don’t want to

hear no one shouting…it was like bells ringing in my head’ (Karina aged 16 in McGee


Some children who illicit aggressive behaviour towards a peer or teacher maybe doing so in

frustration or defence because a particular tone, comment or action was expressed by them in

the manner that the perpetrator did in the process of abuse they witnessed in the home. This

illustrates how domestic violence can be detrimental to the communicative skills of children

and young people because they gain ‘distorted perceptions of the intentions, feelings, and

behaviours of others…’ (Rogosch and Cicchetti 1994 in Cole et al 2005:34) within the school


Social Exclusion and Impact on Attendance

Not only are children likely to suffer academically because of their behavioural symptoms,

their relationships with peers and other adults are also likely to be affected. Internalised

behaviours such as depression, anxiety and withdrawal are symptoms which can exclude the


Internet Journal of Criminology © 2010

child or young person from their peers; their ‘post-traumatic symptoms or behaviour… may

acutely disturb a developing close relationship with a best friend, create a sense of isolation

from peers, or lead to social ostracism’ (Pynoos et al 1996:134). This ‘social ostracism’ is

further increased when children have to move schools because they need to be re-housed or

take shelter in a women’s refuge away from their violent home. This disconnection from both

the academic and social life at school may lead children and young people who have been



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