Promoting resilience in children exposed to intimate partner violence
Alison Fogarty, Rebecca Giallo, Catherine Wood, Hannah Woolhouse, Jordy Kaufman and Stephanie Brown, Australia, March, 2020
This short article has been adapted from a paper recently published in Child Abuse and Neglect: ‘Promoting resilience and wellbeing in children exposed to intimate partner violence: A qualitative study with mothers.’
How are children impacted by exposure to intimate partner violence?
Childhood exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious global health problem, with approximately 1 in 4 children exposed to IPV throughout their childhood (Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, & Hamby, 2015). IPV can take many forms including physical, psychological and sexual violence perpetrated by a current or former partner (World Health Organization, 2013).
Children do not need to directly witness IPV to be impacted, with exposure to IPV defined as living in a house where IPV occurs (Øverlien, 2010). Exposure to IPV in childhood has been associated with serious short- and long-term impacts, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional and/or behavioural problems, and language and academic delays (Evans et al., 2008; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, & Jaffe, 2003).
Despite these increased risks, some children recover well and do not experience poor health, wellbeing and development (Howell, 2011; Martinez et al., 2009). Research that identifies what helps children to do well, despite experiencing IPV, can help practitioners to identify the best ways to support other children.
The role of mothers
Mothers who experience IPV can play a vital role in supporting their children. For example, research has suggested that a responsive and sensitive mother-child relationship and good maternal health can assist children (Graham-Bermann et al., 2009; Howell et al., 2010; Martinez-Torteya et al., 2009). Maternal mental health and parenting style have also been identified as important protective factors (Graham-Bermann et al., 2009; Howell et al., 2010; Martinez-Torteya et al., 2009).
Despite the important role that mothers can play in developing and supporting protective factors, research to date has largely focused on how IPV negatively impacts mothers’ parenting abilities. This approach fails to recognise the many things mothers actively do to support their children during experiences of IPV.
Moreover, few studies have explored mothers’ perspectives on what they do to support their children (i.e. the strategies used to support their children and promote resilience). Knowledge of this lived experience is essential to design appropriate and effective support services for families experiencing IPV.
The current study
The Maternal Health Study (MHS) is a large Australian prospective study of mothers during pregnancy and following the birth of their first child. The current study was a nested qualitative sub-study within the MHS 10-year follow-up. Nine women who had experienced IPV since becoming a mother were interviewed about what they thought had assisted their child or children to cope with, and recover from, exposure to IPV .
Despite previous findings that approximately 29% of MHS participants had experienced IPV in the four years since having their first child (Gartland et al., 2014), the current study had a relatively small uptake of participation. This is likely to due to: (a) the sensitive nature of the topic; and (b) the complex recruitment process undertaken to ensure participant safety.
Participants identified a number of ways they had tried to promote resilience in their children, including:
- being a strong, positive role model for their child through modelling independence and/or a career
- providing a stable relationship with their child and being consistent in their parenting role despite broader family instability
- having conversations with their children about what healthy and unhealthy relationships look and feel like
- encouraging their children to engage in a range of interests, hobbies and sports, due to the perceived benefit to children’s wellbeing and confidence
- looking after their own emotional wellbeing as a way of ensuring they were in the best position to meet the needs of their children
- being reflective of how decisions around father involvement may impact their children, and regularly revisiting these decisions. This appeared to be a dynamic process that mothers reassessed on an ongoing basis.
It is important to recognise, however, that the small number of participants (n = 9) in this study may limit the generalisability of the findings. In addition, women who chose to participate in this study are likely to have had access to social, emotional and financial resources which enabled participation. Therefore, their experiences may not represent those experiencing current severe levels of violence, social isolation and/or socioeconomic disadvantage.
Implications and conclusions
This qualitative study captured the voices of nine women who have experienced IPV and presented their perspective on what has helped their children to cope with, and recover from, their experiences of violence in the family home. The findings highlighted that mothers engage in many strategies to promote the wellbeing of their children.
This study reinforces the importance of working closely with mothers following children’s exposure to IPV. Clinicians and service providers are encouraged to take a strengths-based approach that empowers mothers to build upon the strategies they are already using to support their children. In addition, it is important that services and future studies are informed by those with a lived experience of IPV to ensure the most benefit for families.
Future research should explore the effectiveness of the strategies identified in the current study in promoting positive outcomes for children exposed to IPV.
1 Sample characteristics
The mean age of women interviewed was 47 years, with 67% of the sample born in Australia and all participants reporting being in a heterosexual relationship at the time of experiencing of IPV. Over half of participants (five of the nine women taking part) were in a relationship where IPV was occurring at the time of the interview.
Fogarty, A., Woolhouse, H., Giallo, R., Wood, C., Kaufman, J., & Brown, S. (2019). Mothers’ experiences of parenting within the context of intimate partner violence: Unique challenges and resilience. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Evans, S. E., Davies, C., & DiLillo, D. (2008). Exposure to domestic violence: A meta analysis of child and adolescent outcomes. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13(2), 131-140. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2008.02.005
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2015). Prevalence of childhood exposure to violence, crime, and abuse: Results from the national survey of children’s exposure to violence. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(8), 746-754. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0676
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World Health Organization. (2013). Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/9789241564625/en/