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Manual of Articles Sections 13 - 22
The longer a child is exposed to violence, the more likely it is that the violence will have short-term, in addition to immediate and possibly transitory, influences on the child. Cummings et al. (1981) found that frequent fighting between parents was associated with children's making repeated attempts at intervening within the conflict. The most common reactions of children were distress and withdrawal, however, some children responded with anger and others with affectionate/prosocial behavior. Children's differential responses to observing violence may mirror differences in their personality development. Three early patterns of reactions to family violence can be conceptualized: the child behaving as a victimizer of others (externalizing reaction), as a victim (internalizing reaction), or resiliency.
How might this victimizing behavior begin? Children learn the roles and behaviors of their own sex by observing and interacting with their parents ( Straus et al.). Within the violent home, children learn that violence is the basis for power and control (Jaffe et al., 1990) and that inequality of power, with men being more powerful, is acceptable (Wilson, Cameron, Jaffe, & Wolfe, 1989). Children in these violent homes learn that women nurture but are weak and victimized (Carlson, 1984) because they are insignificant, incompetent, or less important than men (Frieze, 1987). Lessons on intimacy within the violent family may teach that it is acceptable to physically hurt those you love (Carlson, 1984). Violent parents teach children communication and problem-solving skills that highlight violence as an appropriate and effective method for conflict resolution (Wilson et al., 1989) and as the primary mode for demonstrating dissatisfaction and desire for change (Straus). The greater community teaches children that it supports violence by doing little or nothing about it when family violence is reported to community services (Wilson et al., 1989) and through tacit social support for males' expressions of dominance and control (Walker & Browne, 1985).
Dodge, Bates, and Pettit (1990) have found children from violent households to exhibit cognitive deficits in the processing of social information, including failure to attend to relevant cues, bias in attributing hostile intentions to others, and lack of competent behavioral strategies to solve interpersonal problems. This and other research suggests that the experience of physical harm can lead the child to conceptualize the world in deviant ways and thus to develop a victimizer identity (Garbarino, 1990).
While both boys and girls may begin developing victimizing identities, there may be a higher prevalence among boys. Within the United States, sex role socialization encourages the development of different behaviors for males and females, with males encouraged to be less verbally expressive and more physically aggressive (Hartnett & Bradley, 1997). In a cross-cultural study, Zammuner (1987) found that males were more likely than females to become angry in response to provocation and more likely to engage in physical aggression when aggressive behavior was viewed as socially acceptable. In addition, boys are more likely than girls to show angry responses to witnessing interpersonal aggression (E. M. Cummings et al., 1989). In terms of response styles, Achenbach and Edelbrock have found boys to present more externalizing problems (impulsivity, aggression) and girls to present more internalizing problems (anxiety, depression, fear). Similarly, approximately 9% of boys are diagnosed with conduct disorders, in comparison to 2% of girls (American Psychiatric Association).
Dodge et al. (1990) hypothesize that internalizing outcomes may be mediated by attributions of self-blame and expectations that aggression would not succeed in eliminating negative outcomes. This belief on the part of the children that aggression will not help protect them may be supported by their witnessing of their mother fighting back but not succeeding in protecting herself (Straus & Gelles, 1986). Walker stresses that while men use violent acts for power and control, women use them in self-defense to stay alive or to minimize their own injuries. Finally, over time, abused women begin to deny and minimize the extent of the violence, underestimate the lethality of the situation (Browne, 1987; Walker & Browne, 1985), and display signs of learned helplessness (Walker, 1984). These maternal tendencies might prevent their children from establishing a meaningful context for understanding the abuse (Garbarino, 1990) and may provide, especially for their daughters, a model of passive and ineffectual problem solving. These passive tendencies can be reflected in school by low academic achievement, school phobia, difficulties in concentration, and social isolation (Hughes, 1986).
Compounding these factors, sex role socialization encourages girls to be insecure and dependent and boys to be independent and self-confident (Hartnett & Bradley, 1987). It also encourages them to model the same-sex parent (Barnett et at., 1980), for girls to respond to provocation by becoming anxious and boys by becoming angry (Zammuner, 1987); for females to respond with passivity and acceptance to aggression and domination by males (Walker & Browne, 1985), and for the former to view their self-esteem in terms of their relationships and their ability to maintain these relationships (Walker & Browne, 1985). Thus sex role socialization increases the likelihood that more girls than boys will respond to the violent family situation by beginning to assume a victim role.
The Resilient Child
Being resilient is not equivalent to being happy and secure. Resilient children, in their desire to offer protection and nurturance to their mothers and younger siblings (Jaffe et al., 1990), may stay at home with the violence when they could leave. By trying to protect their mothers and younger siblings and to calm their fathers' anger, they generate cross-generational coalitions that violate the integrity of both the spouse and child systems. The resilient child is put in the position of having to grow up too quickly and take on more responsibility within the family than is developmentally appropriate (Barnett et al). It is the role of the parents to protect children, not the reverse (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981). However, despite these difficulties, some children show resilience in terms of functioning well academically and with peers (Jaffe et al., 1990). Turning to schoolwork and peers provides an avenue for day-to-day escape and can lay the groundwork for future life success.
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