Over 15 million children live in homes in which intimate partner violence (IPV) occurs. “A sizable proportion of these children experience significant mental-health problems, but many appear to experience only mild distress, especially those drawn from community samples,” said Renee McDonald of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University. “Parent– child communications about interparent conflict may represent another important dimension of parenting for children who have been exposed to IPV.” Children who witness interparent conflict often express curiosity about the conflict. A number of mothers have reported that if asked, they would explain to their children about the conflict. However, to date, few studies have looked at that behavior to identify the influence it would have on the child’s adjustment. “It seems plausible that mother– child communications about interparent conflict affect children’s understanding of the conflict, and theorists often point to the importance of children’s understanding of their parents’ conflict in influencing children’s adjustment,” said McDonald.
McDonald interviewed 134 mothers who had recently experienced IPV. They assessed the mothers’ responses to their children’s questions, the level of maternal warmth and parent-child aggression twice over a period of six months. “Mothers reported that the most common concern about the conflict expressed by children was why the parents were fighting (75% of children asked about this),” said McDonald. She found that overall, 43% of the mothers either dismissed or ignored the inquiries, 16% answered ambiguously and only 41% of the mothers responded directly to the concerns expressed by the children. “As expected, children whose mothers more directly addressed the content of their children’s questions about interparent conflict had lower levels of externalizing and internalizing problems,” said McDonald. She added, “Clinically, this research might be interpreted to suggest that prevention and intervention efforts designed to alter parent– child interaction in families characterized by IPV may be enhanced by helping mothers more directly address their children’s questions about interparent conflict, rather than avoid, deflect, or dismiss them.”
McDonald, R., Jouriles, E. N., Rosenfield, D., & Leahy, M. M. (2011, December 26). Children’s Questions About Interparent Conflict and Violence: What’s a Mother To Say?. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026122
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