Biospychology. Understanding the Impacts of Domestic Violence and Childhood Risky Family Environment on Children Mental Health

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2014 30 Pages

Psychology - Biological Psychology



Though a large body of research has investigated the impacts of domestic violence on adult’s victims only few studies has been devoted to the exposure of children’s to probable inter-spousal trauma and risky family environment that disrupt their neurological and biochemical pathways in development. The aim of this paper is to analyses the current empirical research that discourse the biological and psychological inference of domestic violence on children’s mental health. In realizing this objective, the paper used the ecological framework to explain the interaction effects of bio- psychological processes on children emotional regulation and social competence skills. Finally, study shows that a risky and harsh early family environment exacerbates disturbances in children ‘physiological and neuroendocrine responses to stress, as well as having a long-term adverse implication on their mental health.

Key Word: domestic violence, risky family environment, mental health,


When we deliberate about the impacts of household violence on children’s wellbeing, we are looking at the implication of living in a home where marital conflict and spousal violence is happening. Domestic violence is globally described by various scholars, academicians and professionals in human development and public health as a stern social problem, and to say the least, a human rights violation. Recent debate over the years on the issue explains the significant influence it has on mental health of young children. A broad research evidence also indicates how intensely the effect of children’s exposure to risky family environment on their wellbeing (Cummings &Davies, 1994; Margolin & Gordis, 2000, Mathias, Mertin, & Murray, 1995; Zeanah, Danis,Hirshberg, Benoit, Miller & Heller, 1999). Though, awareness about ordeal of children induced by family violence are well mentioned [McIntosh, 2009]. Similarly,current and past literature labelled marital conflict as the strongest predictor of behavioural problems in children (Marshall & Watt, 1999) and is connects with internalized and externalized behavioural conduct in childhood. . As a baffling topic for academia, practitioners, and policy-makers, live in a domestic violence household influenced children’s bio-psychosocial development and deleteriously impacts on their socio-cognitive functioning (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Although most children are resilient, the significant few still suffer long-term adverse psychological and biological consequences in life (Hetherington & Kelly,2002).

The main problems identifies in literatures is how to connect the vulnerable young children with the probable inter-spousal trauma that disrupt their neurological and biochemical pathways in development (Dodd, 2009, Kershaw et al 2008, Barnish, 2004, McGee 1997, Humphreys, 2006,). As mostly mentioned, the most cited predictive factors that promote negative outcomes in children are risky family environment (Cummings & Davies, 2010; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Besides, a collection of cross-sectional and future studies revealed that children reared in circumstances, i.e. (irritable and quarrelling environment) developed mental health problems starting from conception on to adulthood (Repetti et al., 2002). Thus, a “risky families” is a childhood household milieu that consists of persistent or constant skirmish, violence, as well as crisis ridden in lieu of warmth and nurturing milieu (Taylor, Lerner, Sage, Lehman, & Seeman, 2004). Early children exposure to such complex environment brings about different form of behaviour that hastens the accruing biological and psychological impairment that come with persistent experience of trauma (Repetti et al., 2002).

Although, emergent research establishes a possible lasting legacies and relationship between childhood riskier family milieus and bio-psychosocial impairments in adult’s age. Numerous scholars like Repetti, Taylor, and Seeman (2002) established a number of childhood’s biological and psychological problems that are linked with the occurrence of dangerous household environments such as nervousness, behaviour disorder, antisocial conduct, and poor cognitive abilities to mention a few. Apart from the childhood implications, negative family exposures promote psychopathology in early adulthood, and later relates to decreased trauma responses, less significant self-rated health, plus poor social relations ( Taylor et al., 2004). Also, research also maintain that domestic violence (DV) experiences increases depressive symptoms in adults ( Sen et al., 2010), nervousness intensities ( Edge et al., 2009), as well as disturbed emotional processing ( Taylor, Eisenberger, Saxbe, Lehman, & Lieberman, 2006). Therefore, children household milieu is a mediator for children’ health and quality of life and dangerous family circumstances promote poorer sleep due to daily distress ( Hanson & Chen, 2010). However, what is yet to be confirmed by most researchers on the topic is the interplay between biological and psychological processes that promote these negative outcomes.


Till date, research has not clearly solved the genetic foundations for risky family environments and its impacts on children health. Differing to the enormous study on domestic violence, studies that address biological and psychological influence of living in a risky family environment is still new. This paper analyses broad assessment of bio-psychological inference of domestic violence on children’s mental health and, also suggests the implications that such experience has on their emotional regulation and social skills. Besides, the paper also discusses broad research about childhood ordeal, particularly, in the context of domestic violence (Center for Disease Control [CDC], 2013; Chapman, Liu, Presley-Cantrell, Edwards, Wheaton, Perry & Croft, 2013). The current research on bio-psychological processes of children living in a domestic violence environment emphasizes more on narrow topics, i.e. (adult’s victims) and failed to offer a reliable outline on children who are silent victims. Finally, an ecological framework that explain the interaction effects of biological and psychological processes on children witnessing domestic violence is presented in this study and possible areas for impending research are debated.

Background Information

Overviews of Domestic Violence and children's mental health

Research continues to prove that young children are potential victims of domestic violence at home and these happens in different ways. Significant body of research argued that children living in a risky family environment are prone to health problems such as emotional and behavioural difficulties. For instance, study conducted by felitti and colleagues in (1998) reported a robust association between early exposure to domestic violence and bio-psychological disorders in adulthood. Also, scholars such Russek and Schwartz (1997) and Walker and colleagues (1999) reported similar relationship between risky family environment and children mental health. This among other research confirmed the link between children health problem and their contextual environment (Repetti et al., 2002). The significant question that continues to generate debates in most literature is why early childhood experience of an adverse household is linked with such broad range of health problems that continue till adulthood.

Domestic violence remains an endemic and dangerous situation that impact negatively on young people’s health and has long-standing implications on their development (Peedicayil et al., 2004). In fact, most research identifies family social and biological environment like, family’s socioeconomic resources and inherited factors, as a contributing factors to a risky family social environment. For example, children brutal exposure to household violence is often followed by many negative evolving factors such as, poverty, poor socio-cognitive functioning, mental health issues, female-headed household (Fantuzzo, Boruch, Beriama, Atkins, & Marcus, 1997). Also, children living in such a risky household mostly get involved in the violence. Most of these children feel that they can call, seek for support or being branded as the main cause of the abusive situation. Although children lives in ferocious households, they are prone to menace of physical harm both during prenatal and postnatal (Christian, Scribano, Seidl, & Pinto-Martin, 1997; Peedicayil et al., 2004). Besides, hereditary factors are also mentioned as a determinant of risky families. For instance, some characteristic that promote and sustain risky family settings may have genetic predisposition (Plomin, DeFries, Craig, & McGuffin, 2003). Therefore, children who are hereditarily inclined to particular difficulties (hyperactive or excessively inhibited temperaments) are adversely influenced by a risky household situation than those who are not exposed to such predating weaknesses. Till date, research has not clearly solved the genetic foundations for risky family environments and their impacts on children. This drawn global attention particularly on the causes, effects and how it portends the biological and emotional wellbeing of young victims.

Though, debate on DV is now globally embraced by various researchers, the focal point of most research on the topic was on the adult’s victims. The problem of abused women has been mounting over two decades, not until recent that the debate about their children receives much consideration and respect it deserved in research literature. While research demonstrates that young children respond to domestic violence in many ways, it is also confirmed that children who constantly experiencing occurrence of domestic violence against a parent bear the worst result of its effects later in life. The emotional disturbance displayed by such children is mostly noted by teachers in school, particularly, in their observation of traumatic violence exhibited when they play with peers, and by paediatricians in the hospital, when they assess children loss or slow developmental progress. Although some of these children are highly aggressive in their general dealing or relationship with peers, they also show signs of depression and withdrawal in their day-to-day activities (Osofsky, 1997).

Besides, most children’s victims of DV show signs of distress in their development while some display high sense of resilient to such negative exposure. However, research documents a significant correlation amongst children witnessing DV and those physically maltreated (Kitzmann et al., 2003). They also established that children exhibited high levels of resilience to the harmful consequences of witnessing violence at home. Similarly children living in violence household displays sign of social and emotional problems, compare to those who never experience DV (Graham-Bermann, 2001). For instance, the higher the level of family or social support available to a child at risk, the more resistant he/she will be (Masten & Reed, 2002). On the contrary, positive parenting such as effective caring, emotional and stable parents alleviate harm and danger in young children (Edleson, Mbilinyi, &Shetty, 2003; Holden, Stein, Ritchie, Harris, & Jouriles, 1998; Levendosky, Lynch, & Graham-Bermann, 2000; Sullivan, Nguyen, Allen, Bybee, & Juras, 2000) and confirmed the significant of early intervention on children’s well-being (Jenkins & Bell, 1997) Despite this assertion, children raised in a domestic violence environment displayed a high risk of maladjustment in life compare to those from a violence free environment.

Bio –Ecological Perspectives

According to Swart and Pettipher (2005) and Lewis (2009) analysing individual proximal and distal environment is a basis for understanding the complexity in individual's life, particularly the interaction and interrelationships between individual and the multiple systems that constitute his environment. As a child grows up they pass through different developmental stages that are influenced by the environment (Dawes & Donald, 2000). This constant interaction significantly influenced their behaviour either positively or negatively, depend on the circumstances they find themselves. Therefore, trauma or misery does not only limit to an individual in a system, but also occur within diverse systems that forms individual part. In lieu of this aforementioned, developmental-ecological perspectives offer a useful framework for better understanding of childhood exposure to risky environment. This theory highlights the significant impact that developmental processes, situational context, and numerous events and interaction has on adaptive as well as maladaptive growth (Rutter & Sroufe, 2000). The theory also linked household intricacy, social, and ethnic factors to developmental adjustments and abnormality in young children and made single-variable reasons held for more examination.

The bio- ecological framework explains how youngsters adjust to cruel situations in their environment, i.e. direct and indirect kinds of violence that compromise their adjusting methods and on-going development. Children’s continuous exposure to DV impacts negatively on their biological and emotional adjustment and later lead to nervous and self-doubting approach in relationships which time and again manifest by robust feelings (e.g., frustration, dissatisfaction, aggression, panic). Also, children react differently to their exposure to DV by demonstrating different emotional problems. This is logical as it signifies children adjustment to maladaptive circumstance. Though, bio-ecological framework permits interaction and understanding at different levels within social systems, what is mostly unnoticed in research literature about children’s mental health is the significance of ecological factors that act as a mediator to violence.

Moreover, children experience violence in their home in three different ways, i.e. child’s abuse at the ontogenetic level, DV at household/micro system level and society violence at exosystem level. Nevertheless, research documents a significant correlation between those experiencing one of these types of violence and other forms of violence. McCloskey, Figueredo, and Koss (1995), submits that men who subject or physically abuse their wives are more probable to physically harm their offspring. Research also argues that there is a relationship between children’s experience chronic society violence and intra-family skirmish (Osofosky, Wewer, Hann & Fick, 1993, Richters & Martinez, 1993). Also, developmental risk literatures demonstrate that children who experience maltreated at home are also victims of community anguish and that multiple risk factors upsurges youngsters ‘menace for maladjustment exponentially.



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Atlantic International University – Behavioural and Social Sciences
biospychology understanding impacts domestic violence childhood risky family environment children mental health




Title: Biospychology. Understanding the Impacts of Domestic Violence and Childhood Risky Family Environment on Children Mental Health