• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 16th January, 2014

Another piece of the puzzle: The “sleeper effect” of intimate partner violence on young children’s aggressive behavior

strong>Children exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) in the first four years of their life are at greater risk of displaying aggressive behavior several years later, even after the exposure has ended, a study into the long-term consequences of IPV has found.Using data from an eight-year longitudinal study, Megan Holmes from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, USA, examined the impact of IPV exposure in the first four years of life on children over the following five years.The study found that at age three, children whose mothers had been physically abused by their partners were no different in their levels of aggressive behavior than children in less violent homes. But there was a “sleeper effect.” Over the next five years, children who were more frequently exposed to IPV between birth and age three displayed more aggressive behavior by age eight.IPV and children’s behaviorThere is a long tradition of research linking domestic violence exposure to poor outcomes in later childhood across all areas of social, emotional and behavioral development. Early patterns of aggressive behavior can develop into more serious violence in adolescence and early adulthood, making early identification of such problems of particular interest to researchers and practitioners.However, research into the impact of exposure to violence among pre-school children has produced mixed results. Some studies have found that very young children who are exposed to IPV act out more than their peers. Other studies have found no such link. One reason for the mixed results may be that exposure to IPV at an early age has a delayed impact – also known as a “sleeper effect” or lag. Children exposed to violence early in their lives may not display behavior problems until they begin to interact regularly with other children and adults outside of the family.A sleeper effect?To investigate this possible sleeper effect, Holmes used data on 446 children involved in the US-based National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW). Just over 100 had been exposed to IPV prior to age four but not after. The rest had never been exposed to IPV.The children exposed to IPV had no more aggressive behavior problems at age three than those who weren’t exposed. But there the two groups diverged. The more violent episodes a mother reported during her child’s infant and toddler years, the more her child’s aggressive behavior escalated during the next five years.This relationship between IPV and children’s aggressive behavior remained even when other factors that might relate to the level of stress in the home were accounted for, including the mother’s age, race, education, poverty level, and mental health. Crucially, IPV had an effect by age eight even after accounting for the impact of child abuse. Overall, the study supports the idea of a sleeper effect of IPV. More puzzle piecesThe study does have its limitations. Although two groups of children who did and did not experience IPV exposure were compared, these groups were both taken from a sample of children identified as victims of child abuse or neglect. If the children exposed to IPV were compared to a group from the general population, the results could differ. Also, the measure of IPV in this study included only physical domestic violence, not psychological. As a result, this study can’t speak to the possible impact on children of witnessing psychological violence.The study provides support for the idea that IPV exposure in early childhood – a developmentally sensitive period – can have a delayed impact on child development. However, the reasons for this lag are still unclear. Holmes argues that children may initially respond to the threat of IPV by becoming more passive in order to avoid physical assault themselves. But if this is true, what causes children’s aggressive behavior to change between age three and eight? Further study into the mechanisms linking early IPV exposure to later aggression in children is clearly needed to understand this process. Such insight is essential for this knowledge to be applied to targeted prevention, identifying those children most at risk of developing later aggressive behavior problems and intervening before those risks turn into reality. ***********Reference:Holmes, M.R. (2013). The sleeper effect of intimate partner violence exposure: long-term consequences on young children's aggressive behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 9, 986-995.

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