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The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project
Manuscripts and Online Data Base
Overview of Findings by the Authors

#7 The Combined and Independent Impact of Witnessed Intimate Partner Violence and Child Maltreatment

K. Watson MacDonell
155 pages. Full manuscript available in Partner Abuse Vol. 3, Issue no. 3 (2012), pp. 358-378

Seventy-three articles were included in the present review; all dissertations, book chapters, or articles not published in peer review journals were excluded. To be included, articles had to contain data; therefore, no theoretical papers were reviewed.  Outcomes related to either witnessing IPV or experiencing childhood maltreatment and witnessing IPV had to be reported in order for the article to be reviewed. Each article was summarized in a table format into six subtopics.  Articles that reported outcomes specific to multiple subtopics were listed in each corresponding table; however, entries only include relevant outcomes.

The research reviewed overwhelmingly suggests that children and adolescents exposed to mutual IPV are at risk for a wide range of detrimental outcomes. Negative consequences were reported in both the internalizing and externalizing domains of functioning, on health and cognitive outcomes as well as on youth’s relationships with family, peers and romantic partners. These negative impacts of witnessing mutual IPV in childhood and adolescence have also been found to persist into adulthood. However, none of the reviewed studies explored the impact on health or intellectual outcomes in adulthood and as these outcomes were found in youth exposed to IPV, it is of interest to the field to assess whether these deficits are maintained long-term. 

Few articles to date have explored the effect of perpetrator gender on exposure outcomes; however, articles that did found interesting differences. There are clear indications that outcomes can differ depending on the gender of the perpetrator as well as the gender of the witness.  Worse outcomes were found in youth exposed to male perpetrated IPV in internalizing and externalizing behavioral domains as well as regarding the use of aggression against family members and dating partners, compared to youth not exposed to violence. In adulthood, dating violence was reported at greater rates in females exposed in youth and higher rates of substance abuse were reported in exposed males and females.  Outcomes related to exposure to female perpetrated IPV were only reported within childhood and adolescence in the articles reviewed.  Again, higher rates of aggression towards peers, family members and dating partners were consistently reported in exposed youth, compared to non-exposed youth. 

Children, when exposed to both IPV and childhood maltreatment have been described as being dealt a ‘double whammy’, as they are exposed to two forms of family violence, each individually found to result in significant negative outcomes both in the short and long-term.  Overall, there are mixed results as to whether there are significant additive effects of witnessing IPV and child maltreatment compared to witnessing IPV only. With some studies finding more negative outcomes for ‘double whammy’ youth and others concluding that additive effects do not exist.  Compared to youth outcomes, less is known about the long-term impact of experiencing both childhood maltreatment and witnessing IPV on adult functioning. It was consistently reported that witnessing IPV was significantly associated with negative outcomes related to adjustment (i.e. depression and trauma symptoms) in adulthood, however, it was experiencing child abuse specifically that was found to contribute to the intergenerational transmission of family violence.

Implications for intervention and policy include increased funding to programs that support parents leaving violent relationships, specifically to provide more intensive counseling for youth witnesses, as well as resources to help the parent get back on their feet.  Also, it is suggested that similar supports be made available for fathers leaving violent situations with their children, as these do not exist. Prevention is imperative, as clear negative implications are related to exposure to family violence. The implementation of evidence-based programs aimed at reducing or preventing behavioral problems in children may aid in reducing familial violence as reductions in child maltreatment have been found as positive outcomes related to this programs and although it hasn’t been assessed, may reduce IPV as well.

Recommendations for future research include the continued use of the Child Behavioral Checklist/Youth Self Report as well as the Conflict Tactics Scale, as both were utilized very consistently across the literature allowing easy comparison across studies. Secondly, future research should focus on samples that are more representative of the general population as a heavy reliance on sampling from, for example battered women’s shelters, might lead to an over-representation of families of lower socio-economic status being assessed. Lastly, as with most research the reviewed literature primarily used cross-sectional designs.  More emphasis on longitudinal designs is needed as cross-sectional designs fail to provide a comprehensive picture of the impact of experiencing family violence, especially with regards to these effects in adulthood. 

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