What Leads to Better Outcomes for Children who Witness Family Violence?

By Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD

Violence directed at a spouse or partner does not only affect the involved partners, but can also impact children that are at home and witness violence. Children witnessing violence are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other emotional or behavioral problems. We’ve highlighted prevalence and effects of children’s exposure to violence in a previous blog. Today, we will focus on protective factors, or attributes that reduce the risk of a negative outcome, that can play an important role in a child’s development and adaptation under adverse conditions.

Shadow of a family
[Flickr, To the 9s by are you my rik, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
Schultz and colleagues [1] studied three potentially protective factors for children exposed to family violence and at risk of developing PTSD or behavioral problems: Self-control; Assertion; and Parent stress. Data were taken from the existing Safe Start Promising Approaches (SSPA) program evaluation dataset, which tracked children from 15 sites over time based on the type of intervention they received. The participants included in this study (children and their parents from a total of 350 families) were those who did not receive any intervention. Target children ranged in age from 1-12, so there were multiple types of measures used, including the Social Skills Rating System, Brief Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment, Parenting Stress Index – Short Form, Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children, and Behavior Problem Index, supplemented with 4 questions from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and information regarding level of violence exposure. Protective factors and outcome measures were collected at the study baseline and in a 6 months follow-up interview.

Mom and children playing in a rain puddle
[Flickr, Ring Around the Roise by ThomasLife, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
Results suggest that children who have better self-control, or have parents who reported less stress, showed fewer PTSD symptoms and fewer behavioral problems. Assertion (such as high self-confidence) did not seem to serve in a protective role related to the development of PTSD symptoms or behavioral problems.


When working with a child who has been exposed to family violence, interventions that focus on reducing parental stress and increasing the child’s self-control may result in more positive outcomes, both for the child and the family.


[1] Schultz, D., Jaycox, L. H., Hickman, L. J., Setodji, C., Kofner, A., Harris, R., & Barnes, D. (2013). The relationship between protective factors and outcomes for children exposed to violence. Violence and Victims, 28(4), 697-714. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-12-00005

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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