Witnessing Domestic Violence and Future Mental Health

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Witnessing Domestic Violence and Future Mental Health    

Jim Windell


            There’s no question that witnessing parental abuse or assault as a child is not good for you. But what is the potential harm of watching violent behavior by your parents?

            And does observing parental domestic violence always lead to long-term negative consequences?

           A new study from the University of Toronto examines these questions. The results were recently reported in the Journal of Family Violence.

           The study used a nationally representative sample which included 17,739 respondents from the Canadian Community Health Survey - Mental Health. Of the total number of respondents, 326 reported having witnessed parental domestic violence (PDV) more than 10 times before age 16, which the researchers defined as “chronic PDV.” Since PDV often occurs in the context of other adversities, including childhood physical and sexual abuse, and since this makes it challenging to examine the mental health outcomes associated solely with PDV in the absence of childhood abuse, the researchers excluded anyone in their study who had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse.

           The study outcomes found that one in six adults (15.2%) who had experienced chronic PDV reported that they later developed an anxiety disorder. Only 7.1% of those who had not been exposed to parental violence reported experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. More than one-quarter of adults (26.8%) who were exposed to chronic PDV in childhood developed substance use disorders, compared to 19.2% of those without exposure to this early adversity. Furthermore, one-fifth (22.5%) of adults who were exposed to chronic PDV during childhood developed a major depressive disorder at some point in their life. This was much higher than the 9.1% of those without a history of parental domestic violence.

           “Many children who are exposed to their parent’s domestic violence remain constantly vigilant and perpetually anxious, fearful that any conflict may escalate into assault,” said co-author Deirdre Ryan‑Morissette, a recent Masters of Social Work graduate from University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW). “Therefore, it is not surprising that decades later, when they are adults, those with a history of PDV have an elevated prevalence of anxiety disorders.”  

           However, the findings were not all negative. More than three in five adult survivors of chronic PDV were in excellent mental health, free from any mental illness, substance dependence or suicidal thoughts in the preceding year. Also, those adult survivors were happy and/or satisfied with their life and reported high levels of social and psychological well-being; this despite their exposure to such harrowing experiences in childhood. Although the prevalence of flourishing mental health was lower among those exposed to chronic PDV in comparison to those whose parents were not violent with each other (62.5% vs 76.1%), it was still much higher than the authors had expected.

           “We were encouraged to discover that so many adults overcame their exposure to this early adversity and are free of mental illness and thriving,” said co-author Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz, Professor at Hebrew University’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare. “Our analysis indicated that social support was an important factor. Among those who had experienced PDV, those who had more social support had much higher odds of being in excellent mental health.”

           These findings underscore the risk of exposure to chronic domestic violence for children – even when the children themselves are not abused. And, adds co-author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto and Professor at FIFSW,  “Social workers and health professionals must work vigilantly to prevent domestic violence and to support both survivors of this abuse and their children.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Fuller-Thomson, E., Ryan-Morissette, D., Attar-Schwartz, S. et al. (2022). Achieving optimal mental health despite exposure to chronic parental domestic violence: What pathways are associated with resilience in adulthood?  Journal of Family Violence.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-022-00390-w



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