Journal of Family Violence

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 377–398 | Cite as

Long-Term Effects of Witnessing Marital Violence for Women: The Contribution of Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse

  • Margaret M. Feerick
  • Jeffrey J. Haugaard


A sample of 313 college women completed a questionnaire about experiences with violence in childhood and adulthood and adult adjustment and relationship functioning. Nine percent of the women reported having witnessed some type of physical conflict between their parents. Witnessing marital violence was associated with other family mental health risks, childhood physical and sexual abuse, and adult physical assaults by strangers. Women who witnessed marital violence reported more symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder than other women, after family background and abuse variables were accounted for. Significant interactions between witnessing marital violence and childhood physical abuse were observed for measures of social avoidance and predictability in partner relationships, indicating that the effects of witnessing marital violence depended on the presence of childhood abuse. Implications of these results for research and interventions are discussed.

marital violence child abuse effects on children adjustment 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Barnett, O. W., Miller-Perrin, C. L., and Perrin, R. D. (1997). Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.Google Scholar
  2. Bartholomew, K., and Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. J. Person. Soc. Psychol. 61: 226–244.Google Scholar
  3. Berger, A. M., Knutson, J. F., Mehm, J. G., and Perkins, K. A. (1988). The self-report of punitive experience of young adults and adolescents. Child Abuse Neglect 12: 251–262.Google Scholar
  4. Briere, J. (1995). Trauma Symptom Inventory professional manual, Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, FL.Google Scholar
  5. Briere, J., Elliott, D. M., Harris, K., and Cotman, A. (1995). The Trauma Symptom Inventory: Psychometrics and association with childhood and adult victimization in clinical samples. J. Interpers. Violence 10: 387–401.Google Scholar
  6. Carlson, B. E. (1984). Children's observation of interparental violence. In Roberts, A. R. (ed.), Battered Women and Their Families: Intervention Strategies and Treatment Programs, Springer, New York, pp. 147–167.Google Scholar
  7. Carlson, B. E. (1991). Outcomes of physical abuse and observation of marital violence among adolescents in placement. J. Interpers. Violence 6: 526–534.Google Scholar
  8. Christopoulos, C., Cohn, D. A., Shaw, D. S., Joyce, S., Sullivan-Hanson, J., Kraft, S. P., and Emery, R. E. (1987). Children of abused women: I. Adjustment at time of shelter residence. J. Marriage Family 49: 611–619.Google Scholar
  9. Cyr, J. J., McKenna-Foley, J. M., and Peacock, E. (1985). Factor structure of the SCL-90-R: Is there one? J. Person. Assess. 49: 571–578.Google Scholar
  10. Davis, L. V., and Carlson, B. E. (1987). Observation of spouse abuse: What happens to the children? J. Interpers. Violence 2: 278–291.Google Scholar
  11. Derogatis, L. R., Lipman, R. S., Rickels, K., Uhlenhuth, E. H., and Covi, L. (1974). The Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL): A self-report symptom inventory. Behav. Sci. 14a: 1–15.Google Scholar
  12. Dostal, C., and Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J. (1997). Relationship-specific cognitions and family-of-origin divorce and abuse. J. Divore Remarriage 27: 101–120.Google Scholar
  13. Doumas, D., Margolin, G., and John, R. S. (1994). The intergenerational transmission of aggression across three generations. J. Family Violence 9: 157–175.Google Scholar
  14. Fantuzzo, J. W., and Lindquist, C. U. (1989). The effects of observing conjugal violence on children: A review and analysis of research methodology. J. Family Violence 4: 77–94.Google Scholar
  15. Fantuzzo, J. W., DePaola, L. M., Lambert, L., Martino, T., Anderson, G., and Sutton, S. (1991). Effects of interparental violence on the psychological adjustment and competencies of young children. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 59: 258–265.Google Scholar
  16. Fergusson, D. M., and Horwood, L. J. (1998). Exposure to interparental violence in childhood and psychological adjustment in young adulthood. Child Abuse Neglect 22: 339–357.Google Scholar
  17. Finkelhor, D. (1994). Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. Future Children 4: 31–53.Google Scholar
  18. Forsstrom-Cohen, B., and Rosenbaum, A. (1985). The effects of parental marital violence on young adults: An exploratory investigation. J. Marriage Family 47: 467–472.Google Scholar
  19. Gelles, R. J. (1997). Intimate Violence in Families, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.Google Scholar
  20. Gleason, W. J. (1995). Children of battered women: Developmental delays and behavioral dysfunction. Violence Victims 10: 153–160.Google Scholar
  21. Groves, B., Zuckerman, B., Marans, S., and Cohen, D. J. (1993). Silent victims: Children who witness violence. JAMA 269: 262–264.Google Scholar
  22. Henning, K., Leitenberg, H., Coffey, P., Turner, T., and Bennett, R. T. (1996). Long-term psychological and social impact of witnessing physical conflict between parents. J. Interpers. Violence 11: 35–51.Google Scholar
  23. Hershorn, M., and Rosenbaum, A. (1985). Children of marital violence: A closer look at the unintended victims. Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 55: 260–266.Google Scholar
  24. Holden, G. W., and Ritchie, K. L. (1991). Linking extreme marital discord, child rearing, and child behavior problems: Evidence from battered women. Child Dev. 62: 311–327.Google Scholar
  25. Hughes, H. M. (1988). Psychological and behavioral correlates of family violence in child witnesses and victims. Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 58: 77–90.Google Scholar
  26. Jaffe, P., Wilson, S., and Wolfe, D. A. (1986a). Promoting changes in attitudes and understanding of conflict resolution among child witnesses of family violence. Can. J. Psychiatry 143: 74–77.Google Scholar
  27. Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D. A., Wilson, S. K., and Zak, L. (1986b). Family violence and child adjustment: A comparative analysis of girls' and boys' behavioral symptoms. Am. J. Psychiatry 143: 74–77.Google Scholar
  28. Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D. A., and Wilson, S. K. (1990). Children of Battered Women, Sage, Newbury Park, CA.Google Scholar
  29. Jones, W. H., Briggs, S. R., and Smith, T. G. (1986). Shyness: Conceptualization and measurement. J. Person. Soc. Psychol. 51: 629–639.Google Scholar
  30. Jouriles, E. N., Barling, J., and O'Leary, K. D. (1987). Predicting child behavior problems in maritally violent families. J. Abnorm. Child Psychol. 15: 165–173.Google Scholar
  31. Kalmuss, D. (1984). The intergenerational transmission of marital aggression. J. Marriage Family 46: 11–19.Google Scholar
  32. Kilpatrick, K. L., and Williams, L. M. (1998). Potential mediators of post-traumatic stress disorder in child witnesses to domestic violence. Child Abuse Neglect 22: 319–330.Google Scholar
  33. Kolbo, J. R. (1996). Risk and resilience among children exposed to family violence. Violence Victims 11: 113–128.Google Scholar
  34. Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., and Dostal, C. (1996). Retrospective reports of family-of-origin divorce and abuse and college student's pre-parenthood cognitions. J. Family Violence 11: 331–346.Google Scholar
  35. Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., Monson, C. M., Meyer, K. A., Caster, J., and Sanders, A. (1998). The associations among family-of-origin violence and young adults' current depressed, hopeless, suicidal, and life-threatening behavior. J. Family Violence 13: 243–261.Google Scholar
  36. Leary, M. R. (1988). Socially based anxiety: A review of measures. In Tardy, C. (ed.), A Handbook for the Study of Human Communication: Methods and Instruments for Observing, Measuring, and Assessing Communication Processes, Ablex, Norwood, NJ, pp. 365–384.Google Scholar
  37. McCloskey, L. A., Figueredo, A. J., and Koss, M. P. (1995). The effects of systemic family violence on children's mental health. Child Dev. 66: 1239–1261.Google Scholar
  38. McGee, R. A., Wolfe, D. A., and Wilson, S. K. (1997). Multiple maltreatment experiences and adolescent behavior problems: Adolescents' perspectives. Dev. Psychopathol. 9: 131–149.Google Scholar
  39. Miller, B. A. (1990). Child Sexual Abuse Interview. Unpublished scale. New York State Research Institute on Alcoholism and Addictions, Buffalo.Google Scholar
  40. Nunes, E. V., Goehl, L., Seracini, A., Deliyannides, D., Donovan, S., Post-Koenig, T., Quitkin, F. M., and Williams, J. (1993). Diagnosis of depression and panic disorder in substance abusers: A modification of the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R. Unpublished manuscript. Depression Research Unit, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York.Google Scholar
  41. O'Keefe, M. (1994). Linking marital violence, mother-child/father-child aggression, and child behavior problems. J. Family Violence 9: 63–79.Google Scholar
  42. O'Keefe, M. (1996). The differential effects of family violence on adolescent adjustment. Child Adolesc. Soc. Work J. 13: 51–68.Google Scholar
  43. Osofsky, J. D. (1995). Children who witness domestic violence: The invisible victims. Soc. Policy Rep. 9: 1–16.Google Scholar
  44. Pynoos, R. S., and Nader, K. (1990). Children's exposure to violence and traumatic death. Can. J. Psychiatry 35: 334–476.Google Scholar
  45. Rempel, J. K., and Holmes, J. G. (1986). How do I trust thee? Psychol. Today Feb.: 28–34.Google Scholar
  46. Rempel, J. K., Holmes, J. G., and Zanna, M. P. (1985). Trust in close relationships. J. Person. Soc. Psychol. 49: 95–112.Google Scholar
  47. Robinson, J. P., Shaver, P. R., and Wrightsman, L. S. (1991). Measures of Personality and Social Psychological Attitudes, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, San Diego, CA.Google Scholar
  48. Rosenbaum, A., and O'Leary, K. D. (1981). Children: The unintended victims of marital violence. Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 51: 692–699.Google Scholar
  49. Rutter, M. (1979). Protective factors in children's responses to stress and disadvantage. In Kent, M. W., and Rolf, J. E. (eds.), Social Competence in Children, University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, pp. 49–74.Google Scholar
  50. Silvern, L., Karyl, J., Waelde, L., Hodges, W. F., Stark, J., Heidt, E., and Min, K. (1995). Retrospective reports of parental partner abuse: Relationships to depression, trauma symptoms and self-esteem among college students. J. Family Violence 10: 177–202.Google Scholar
  51. Smith, J., and O'Connor, I. (1997). Child adjustment in high conflict families. Child Care Health Dev. 23: 113–133.Google Scholar
  52. Spaccarelli, S., Sandler, I. N., and Roosa, M. (1994). History of spouse violence against mother: Correlated risks and unique effects in child mental health. J. Family Violence 9: 79–98.Google Scholar
  53. Spaccarelli, S., Coatsworth, J. D., and Bowden, B. S. (1995). Exposure to serious family violence among incarcerated boys: Its association with violent offending and potential mediating variables. Violence Victims 10: 163–182.Google Scholar
  54. Spaccarelli, S., Bowden, B., Coatsworth, J. D., and Kim, S. (1997). Psychosocial correlates of male sexual aggression in a chronic delinquent sample. Crim. Just. Behav. 24: 71–95.Google Scholar
  55. Spitzer, R. L., Williams, J. B. W., Gibbon, M., and First, M. (1993). Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R/IV, Biometrics Research Department, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York.Google Scholar
  56. Straus, M. A. (1979). Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics scales. J. Marriage Family 41: 75–88.Google Scholar
  57. Straus, M. A. (1992). Children as witnesses to marital violence: A risk factor for lifelong problems among a nationally representative sample of American men and women. In Schwarz, D. F. (ed.), Children and Violence: Report on the 23rd Ross Roundtable on Critical Approaches to Common Pediatric Problems, Ross Laboratories, Columbus, OH, pp. 98–104.Google Scholar
  58. Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J., (1990). Physical Violence in American Families, Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ.Google Scholar
  59. Straus, M. A., Gelles, R. J., and Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family, Doubleday, Garden City, NY.Google Scholar
  60. Ulbrich, P., and Huber, J. (1981). Observing parental violence: Distribution and effects. J. Marriage Family 43: 623–631.Google Scholar
  61. Watson, D., and Friend, R. (1969). Measurement of social-evaluative anxiety. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 33: 448–457.Google Scholar
  62. White, J. W., and Humphrey, J. A. (1994). Women's aggression in heterosexual conflicts. Aggress. Behav. 20: 195–202.Google Scholar
  63. Widom, C.S., and Morris, S. (1997). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 2. Childhood sexual abuse. Psychol. Asses. 9: 34–46.Google Scholar
  64. Widom, C.S., and Shepard, R.L. (1996). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 1. Childhood physical abuse. Psychol. Assess. 8: 412–421.Google Scholar
  65. Wildin, S. R., Williamson, W. D., and Wilson, G. S. (1991). Children of battered women: Developmental and learning profiles. Clin. Pediatrics 30: 299–304.Google Scholar
  66. Wolfe, D. A., and McGee, R. (1994). Dimensions of child maltreatment and their relationship to adolescent adjustment. Dev. Psychopathol. 6: 165–181.Google Scholar
  67. Wolfe, D. A., Jaffe, P., Wilson, S. K., and Zak, L. (1985). Children of battered women: The relation of child behavior to family violence and maternal stress. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 53: 657–665.Google Scholar
  68. Wolfe, D. A., Zak, L., Wilson, S., and Jaffe, P. (1986). Child witnesses to violence between parents: Critical issues in behavioral and social adjustment. J. Abnorm. Child Psychol. 14: 95–104.Google Scholar
  69. Wyatt, G. E. (1985). The sexual abuse of afro-american and white-american women in childhood. Child Abuse Neglect 9: 507–519.Google Scholar
  70. Zuckerman, B., Augustyn, M., Groves, B., and Parker, S. (1995). Silent victims revisited: The special case of domestic violence. Pediatrics 96: 511–513.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Child Development and Behavior BranchNational Institute of Child Health and Human DevelopmentBethesda
  2. 2.Department of Human DevelopmentCornell UniversityIthaca

Personalised recommendations