Childhood exposure to partner violence as a moderator of current partner violence and negative parenting

Hasselle, A.J., Howell, K.H., Thurston, I.B., Kamody, R.C., & Crossnine, C.B. (2020)

Violence Against Women, 26(8), 851-869

Type of Profession:

This study examined the interactive effect of mothers’ exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) during childhood and the impact of IPV on negative parenting practices. Mothers were recruited from community sites serving individuals experiencing IPV. Findings indicated that the following childhood IPV exposure variables moderated the association between current IPV severity and negative parenting practices: total types of IPV witnessed, witnessing sexual IPV, and witnessing psychological IPV. Results highlight the intergenerational effect of violence and the importance of addressing trauma across the family system.

Expanded Abstract: 

Nearly 60% of women in the United States experience intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime, defined as psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse between romantic partners (Black, Sussman, & Unger, 2010). Additionally, over 15 million U.S. children live in homes characterized by at least one incident of IPV in the past year (McDonald, Jouriles, Ramisetty-Mikler, Caetano, & Green, 2006). IPV has been linked to poor physical health outcomes and high rates of psychological distress (Lagdon, Armour, & Stringer, 2014). Such negative effects are pronounced among women who are also parenting children amid this violence (Ahlfs-Dunn & Huth-Bocks, 2016). High rates of distress, coupled with a potentially chaotic home environment, may affect the parenting practices of women experiencing IPV (Greeson et al., 2014). One factor that may influence the relationship between IPV and parenting is mothers’ own exposure to IPV during their childhood. The predominant theory explaining interparental conflict and parenting is the so-called “spillover hypothesis,” which suggests that emotions and moods experienced within the parental relationship can transfer to the parent–child relationship (Sturge-Apple et al., 2010). In the context of IPV and negative parenting practices (NPP), “spillover” is evident when hostility, conflict, and contention between adult partners increase a parent’s propensity for harsh, controlling parenting behaviors, aggression, and corporal punishment (Cummings & Davies, 2002; Shep & O’Leary, 2005). In addition to hostility, IPV can lead a woman to feel detached, withdrawn, and apathetic toward her partner, feelings that some believe lead to insensitive and disengaged parenting practices (Casanueva, Martin, Runyan, Barth, & Bradley, 2008; Gustafsson, Coffman, & Cox, 2015). A higher severity of IPV has also been found to be associated with increased hostility, disengagement, and harsh-intrusive parenting (Gustafsson, Cox, & Blair, 2012; Sturge-Apple et al., 2010). Importantly, studies have also found that mothers who experience IPV report higher stress than mothers from non-violent relationships (Tailor et al., 2015).

The current study involved 119 mothers of school-aged children who had experienced IPV in the past 6 months, and scrutinized the interaction between a mother’s exposure to IPV during her childhood and the amount of violence experienced with a partner during her adulthood, and on NPP.

The study did not find that higher levels of adult IPV were associated with higher levels of NPP. This unexpected finding aligns with a body of recent literature suggesting that IPV does not, in and of itself, negatively affect parenting (Dayton et al., 2010; Greeson et al., 2014; Tailor et al., 2015). Findings from these studies indicated that rather than allowing negative emotions to spillover to the mother–child relationship, some women may actively employ techniques to prevent current distress from influencing their parenting practices.

This study highlights the importance of tailoring interventions for women and children exposed to IPV, as cumulative exposure to IPV at different points across the lifespan may have differential effects on parenting.