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According to the 1993 Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS), approximately 39% of women who reported they were assaulted by a marital or common-law spouse during their lifetime reported that their children had witnessed the violence against them. Similarly, the more recent 1999 General Social Survey on Victimization found that 37% of women and men who reported they were assaulted by a spouse also reported that their children had heard or seen the violence take place. Both surveys suggest that when children witnessed the violence, victims were more likely to report serious forms of abuse, more likely to suffer physical injury and more likely to fear their lives were in danger at some point during their relationship (Dauvergne and Johnson, 2001).
Evidence shows that exposure to situations of domestic violence can have serious negative effects on a child’s development. Social learning theory suggests that children who are exposed to interpersonal violence in the home may also learn to use violence in their own lives (Bandura, 1977). Several studies have shown that children who have witnessed family violence may be more likely to approve of the use of violence for conflict resolution (Carlson, 1991; Jaffe et al., 1986), and are more likely to display violent behaviour themselves (Dauvergne and Johnson, 2001; Singer et al., 1988).
In addition to the direct impact of witnessing violence on child behaviour, children are affected indirectly by family conflict through the breakdown of family relationships (such as inter-marital, sibling, or parent-child relationships). Studies have shown that children who witness violence in the home display higher rates of depression, anxiety and other emotional problems as compared to other children (Dauvergne and Johnson, 2001; Holden and Ritchie, 1991; Hughes et al., 1989; Hughes, 1988).
The long-term consequences of witnessing family violence is also well documented in the research literature. Many studies show that men who witnessed their fathers abuse their mothers are at greater risk of abusing their own partners as adults (American Psychological Association, 1996). According to the 1993 Canadian VAWS, men who witnessed their mothers being physically abused by their fathers as children were three times more likely to be violent in their own marital relationships than men who grew up in non-violent homes (Johnson, 1996). Although most research has focused on male violence toward their partner, there is some evidence that women who witnessed inter-parental violence in childhood have a higher likelihood of using violence against their own spouses or dating partners (Avakame, 1998; Breslin et al., 1990). In addition, women who witnessed their mothers being abused are more likely to have low-self esteem as adults (Silvern et al., 1995), and are significantly more likely to suffer from abuse in their own marital relationships (Dauvergne and Johnson, 2001).
Despite widespread evidence of harmful outcomes for children who witness violence, not all of these children will develop conduct disorders and many adults who witnessed violence as children do not use or experience violence in adult relationships. There are many other important influences in a child’s development that can aggravate or mitigate the negative effects of witnessing violence. Research focusing on the resilience and vulnerability of children exposed to family violence has identified a number of individual, family and community support factors that minimize risk among children who witness violence. At the individual level, having high self-esteem and “psychological hardiness” have been identified as protective factors that help to mitigate the effect of witnessing violence, along with the intellectual ability of the child (APA, 1996; Kolbo, 1996; Lynch and Roberts, 1982). Living in otherwise stable and socially connected households with high levels of social support has also been shown to offer a buffering effect, as these children have other sources of emotional support within and outside of the family as well as other models of social interaction (Muller et al., 2000; Kolbo, 1996; Durant et al., 1994).
This report explores the effect of witnessing violence in the home on aggressive behaviour among children, controlling for other important influences such as parenting practices, community and social support available to the parent and child, child emotional problems, and other socio-demographic factors. The analysis is based on random samples of children and their primary caregivers interviewed for the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). These children were 6 to 11 years of age in the third cycle of the survey. Given that early child conduct problems are found to be important predictors of crime and delinquency later in life (Loeber and Hay, 1997; Nagin and Paternoster, 1991; Moffitt, 1990), children in this age range are a critical target group for early crime prevention programs.