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New Light on Domestic Violence’s Effect on NZ kids

New Light Shed on Domestic Violence’s Effect on NZ Children

Vast majority who witness episodes remember them as very upsetting: Otago Study

One quarter of New Zealanders growing up in the 1970s and 80s were exposed to physical violence or threats of violence between their parents, according to a new study by University of Otago researchers.

Their paper, which appears in the latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, reports on parental domestic violence witnessed by members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which continues to track nearly 1,000 people born in Dunedin in 1972-73.

As adults, the great majority of study members who witnessed violent parental behaviour as children remembered it as very upsetting, says lead author Ms Judy Martin of the Dunedin School of Medicine’s Psychological Medicine Department.

“This was regardless of whether it was the father or mother who was the aggressor, and whether the violence was carried out or threatened,” says Ms Martin.

Over half (55%) reported violence directed only from father to mother, 16% percent only from mother to father, and 28% percent involving both parents. Three quarters of the violent families experienced physical violence, she says.

Study members who had witnessed violence were more likely to have diagnoses of anxiety or depression at age 21, though it is unclear how directly this was related to the exposure to violence, she says.

“This research shows that no matter who is responsible, all forms of parental violence have the potential for negative impact on children, whether it is immediate distress, or a more long term reaction,” she says.

“Understandably, violence that happened five or more times was more strongly linked to emotional distress than fewer episodes,” she added.

This study was carried out in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary study when the study members were 26.

This was the first time that study members had been questioned about violence in their family of origin. The study asked in turn if either parent had hit, harmed or threatened the other parent before the study members were 18 years old.

Of the whole sample, 19 per cent recalled physical violence ranging from slaps and shoves to life-threatening beatings. Another six per cent reported threats only. Half of those who witnessed physical violence reported five or more episodes.

Study members who reported violence gave a brief description of the circumstances and answered specific questions. These showed that 87 per cent saw or heard the violence at the time and that the police were involved in one fifth of cases. Injuries were also described by one fifth.

“We were surprised at what detailed accounts study members were able to give of what they had witnessed years before, including descriptions of precipitating events,” says Ms Martin.

The anecdotes support research that suggests there are at least two broad types of domestic violence; one developing from a mutual disagreement, in which a physical attack, sometimes reciprocated, is part of the pattern of escalation, and a second where violence is deliberately used by one partner in the relationship to control and intimidate the other, she says.

Although not all accounts could be categorized in this way, there were obvious examples of both types.

“In general, study members were able to take a fairly nuanced and non-judgmental view of their parent’s violence,” Ms Martin says, “but if they thought one parent was at fault, they said so - and it was interesting that girls were more likely to blame fathers, and boys more likely to blame both parents.

“Even though most of the severe and frequent violence in this study was carried out by fathers, violence carried out by women needs to be recognised as having the same potential for harm, especially for the children unwittingly caught in the conflict.”

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