Fall 2023 Newsletter

How Children's Mental Health and Family Mechanisms are Influenced by Intimate Partner Violence

family with children walk across bridge

Intimate partner violence (IPV) exposure during childhood can cause internalizing and externalizing problems that may even become evident years later. Previous research has shown a wide variability in the effect of IPV on children’s mental health, with preschool-age children notably understudied. There is a great need to provide person-centered interventions to children and families experiencing IPV and to help those who are at risk of perpetrating IPV, to reduce the detrimental outcomes of this abuse.

Minji Lee
Minji Lee

A study recently published in Development and Psychopathology led by Minji Lee, Clinical Psychology PhD student of the Violence & Trauma Across the Lifespan (ViTAL) Lab (PI: Maria Galano), explored different parenting mechanisms present in families where IPV is occurring. Lee wanted to see how parenting practices (warmth, overreactivity, and laxness) and parental depression affected children’s mental health. Child temperament was also taken into consideration to see if it influenced outcomes relating to IPV exposure.

Data was gathered from a large-scale longitudinal study headed by Professor Lisa Harvey and Sungha Kang ‘23PhD which was principally aimed at understanding early development of ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. A sample of 186 children (101 boys, 85 girls) who lived with parents full-time was used during the present study. Parents completed reports of child temperament (using an array of irritability and activity items) and child mental health (internalizing and externalizing problems) at ages 3, 4, and 6. Both parents also recorded their own experiences with conflict, perpetrating or being a target of IPV, mental health, and parenting practices.

“We looked at IPV which involves two parties in the family,” Lee says, “and we really need to have a more accurate picture of how parents are interacting with their kids and also how they interpretate their kid’s behavior from their own perspective.”

Results from the study showed IPV perpetration by both mothers and fathers had a harmful effect on child mental health outcomes. Mothers’ IPV was associated with greater paternal depression, paternal overreactivity, and maternal laxness. Fathers’ IPV was associated with more paternal overreactivity.

The most significant finding was that mothers’ IPV gave rise to more paternal depression, which worsened child internalizing and externalizing problems. This study and others have shown that fathers are very influential on their child’s development, even after committing IPV themselves. Mothers’ IPV appeared to yield more maternal depression, and this depression was associated with child externalizing problems. Gathering the unique perspectives of both mothers and fathers was an innovative component of this study.

Ultimately, parenting practices did not have an impact on child outcomes. One reason parenting practices may not have shown an effect is the somewhat broad measures that were used. For instance, parental warmth was a category that included certain parental behaviors like affection, praise, and positive reinforcement; but this category did not capture certain nuances of good parenting such as setting healthy boundaries or providing structure to a child’s home environment. The study did find negative parenting practices like harshness or laxness did predict more child problems, but this fact was not necessarily affected by IPV.

The effect of child temperament was also found to be nonsignificant. In future studies, children’s physiological and regulatory changes following IPV exposure could be monitored more closely and in real-time. One theory is that effects of IPV could overpower any moderation by a child’s temperament. The study also looked primarily at depression but other parental mental health issues like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse can play a significant role in shaping child mental health outcomes.

Overall, this study indicates the need to engage the whole family in interventions confronting IPV, making sure to include fathers. Lee mentions the critical need for IPV pre-screening for families, “3-6 years old is a really critical period of development for a child’s emotions and parent-child relationships, and this period could determine their future relationship style with peers and significant others later in life. When it comes to these preschool ages, I think early intervention is the key to making changes and making things better.”

This project is also a great example of a student-run cross-laboratory endeavor. Lee developed the core ideas and models, Sungha Kang led the data analysis, graduate student Ana Uribe contributed writing and review. Faculty advisors Maria Galano and Lisa Harvey supported students in all aspects of the project, including idea development, data analysis, and manuscript writing and review.

Lee and other student colleagues are also members of the Early Childhood Psychopathology (ECP) Mentorship Consortium, a joint research training effort between the SEED Lab (PI: Adam Grabell), the Learning Lab (PI: Jen McDermott), the FAM Lab (PI: Evelyn Mercado), the Harvey Early Behavior Development Lab (PI: Lisa Harvey), and the ViTAL Lab (PI: Maria Galano). At ECP meetings, Lee received guidance in the early stages of preparing her cross-laboratory project, working with senior graduate students and faculty.

For Lee’s dissertation, she is hoping to explore a mechanism called “parent-child dyadic coping”, historically used among couples, the way they cope with stress together, plan how to deal with demands put on their relationship, and support each other. She hopes to learn more about how dyadic coping can affect parent-child relationships and family processes.