Children's Sense of Threat From Parental Fighting Determines Trauma Symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

If children feel threatened by even very low levels of violence between their parents, they may be at increased risk for developing trauma symptoms, new research suggests.

A study by psychologists at Southern Methodist University found that children who witness violence between their mother and her intimate partner report fewer trauma symptoms if they don't perceive the violence as threatening. The research highlights the importance of assessing how threatened a child feels when his or her parents are violent toward each another and how that sense of threat may be linked to symptoms of trauma.

"Our results indicated a relation between children's perception of threat and their trauma symptoms in a community sample reporting relatively low levels of violence," said Deborah Corbitt-Shindler, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department at SMU. "The results of the study suggest that even very low levels of violence, if interpreted as threatening by children, can influence the development of trauma symptoms in children."

The researchers presented their findings February 24 at the National Summit on Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The scientific conference was sponsored by the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence Across the Lifespan.

Family violence experts estimate more than half of children exposed to intimate partner violence experience trauma symptoms, such as bad dreams and nightmares, and try to forget about the fights.

The SMU study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, included 532 children. The families were recruited from communities in the urban Dallas area. For the study, mothers were asked to describe any violent arguments they'd had with their intimate partners, and they were also asked about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence.

Similarly, the children in the study, ages 7 to 10, were asked to appraise how threatened they felt by the violence they witnessed and about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence. The researchers defined threat as the extent to which children are concerned a family member might be harmed, the stability of the family is threatened or a parent won't be able to care for them.

To assess trauma, children were asked if they'd had bad dreams or nightmares about their mom's and dad's arguments or fights; if thoughts of the arguments or fights ever just pop into their mind; if they ever try to forget all about the arguments and fights; and if they ever wish they could turn off feelings that remind them of the arguments and fights.

The SMU researchers found that even when mothers reported an episode of intimate partner violence, their children reported fewer trauma symptoms when they didn't view the episode as threatening. Although a mother's emotions sometimes affect their children's emotions, in this study the mothers' trauma symptoms were unrelated to the children's traumatic responses to the violence.

Kim Cobb

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 15, 2010