Witnessing Parental Domestic Violence in Childhood Linked to Mental Illness in Adulthood

Summary: Over 22% of adults who were chronically exposed to parental domestic violence as children developed major depressive disorder later in life. 1 in 6 adults who witnessed PDV developed anxiety disorders, and over 25% later developed substance use disorders.

Source: University of Toronto

A new study from the University of Toronto found that one-fifth (22.5%) of adults who were exposed to chronic parental domestic violence during childhood developed a major depressive disorder at some point in their life. This was much higher than the 9.1% of those without a history of parental domestic violence.

“Our findings underline the risk of long-term negative outcomes of chronic domestic violence for children, even when the children themselves are not abused,” says author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto and Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW).

“Social workers and health professionals must work vigilantly to prevent domestic violence and to support both survivors of this abuse and their children”

Parental domestic violence (PDV) often occurs in the context of other adversities, including childhood physical and sexual abuse, making it challenging to examine the mental health outcomes associated solely with parental domestic violence in the absence of childhood abuse.

To address this problem, the authors excluded anyone in their study who had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse.

The study’s nationally representative sample ultimately included 17,739 respondents from the Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health, of whom 326 reported having witnessed PDV more than 10 times before age 16, which was defined as ‘chronic PDV’.

One in six adults (15.2%) who had experienced chronic PDV reported that they later developed an anxiety disorder. Only 7.1% of those who had not been exposed to parental violence also reported experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

“Many children who are exposed to their parent’s domestic violence remain constantly vigilant and perpetually anxious, fearful that any conflict may escalate into assault. Therefore, it is not surprising that decades later, when they are adults, those with a history of PDV have an elevated prevalence of anxiety disorders,” said co-author Deirdre Ryan‑Morissette, a recent Masters of Social Work graduate from University of Toronto’s FIFSW.

More than one-quarter of adults (26.8%) who were exposed to chronic PDV in childhood developed substance use disorders, compared to 19.2% of those without exposure to this early adversity. 

However, the findings were not all negative. More than three in five adult survivors of chronic PDV were in excellent mental health, free from any mental illness, substance dependence or suicidal thoughts in the preceding year; were happy and/or satisfied with their life and reported high levels of social and psychological well-being, despite their exposure to such harrowing experiences in childhood.

Although the prevalence of flourishing mental health was lower among those exposed to chronic PDV in comparison to those whose parents were not violent with each other (62.5% vs 76.1%), it was still much higher than the authors had expected.

“We were encouraged to discover that so many adults overcame their exposure to this early adversity and are free of mental illness and thriving,” said co-author Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz, Professor at Hebrew University’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare.

This shows a sad child covering her head
One in six adults (15.2%) who had experienced chronic PDV reported that they later developed an anxiety disorder. Image is in the public domain

“Our analysis indicated that social support was an important factor. Among those who had experienced PDV, those who had more social support had much higher odds of being in excellent mental health.”

The study was limited by several factors. The Canadian Community Health Survey did not include important information about the PDV such as the duration in years, the respondent’s relationship to the perpetrator of the violence, or the severity of the violence.

The study was based on cross-sectional data gathered at one point in time; it would have been much preferable to have longitudinal rather than cross-sectional data.

“Our study highlights the need for more research on interventions for mental illness, substance use disorders, and social isolation among those with PDV exposure, with the goal of having a greater proportion of those experiencing childhood adversities obtaining optimal mental health” said Fuller-Thomson.

About this mental health and domestic violence research news

Author: Dale Duncan
Source: University of Toronto
Contact: Dale Duncan – University of Toronto
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Achieving Optimal Mental Health Despite Exposure to Chronic Parental Domestic Violence: What Pathways are Associated with Resilience in Adulthood?” by Esme Fuller-Thomson et al. Journal of Family Violence


Achieving Optimal Mental Health Despite Exposure to Chronic Parental Domestic Violence: What Pathways are Associated with Resilience in Adulthood?

Despite the numerous adverse consequences of exposure to parental domestic violence (PDV), some of those with a history of PDV thrive in adulthood and achieve complete mental health (CMH).

This study investigates whether lifetime history of mental illness (depression, anxiety, substance use disorder) and social support (social provision scale) mediate the relationship between exposure to PDV and CMH in adulthood.

A sample of 17,739 respondents from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health including 326 with a history of chronic PDV (> 10 times before age 16).

CMH was defined as: 1) the absence of mental illness and substance dependence; 2) happiness or life satisfaction; and 3) psychological and social well-being. Path analyses were used to test the objective. Those exposed to PDV had a significantly lower prevalence of CMH compared to the general population (62.5% vs 76.1%, p < .001).

Evidence of mediation was found for depression (indirect effect = -.19; 95%CI = -.30, -.09, p = .002), anxiety (indirect effect = -.12; 95%CI = -.20, -.05, p = .005), substance use disorder (indirect effect = -.04; 95%CI = -0.07, -.01, p = .016) and social provisions (indirect effect = -.13; 95%CI = -.19, -.07, p < .001). Among those with a history of PDV the odds of CMH were lower among those with lower social support and those with a history of substance use disorder or anxiety.

It is important to consider mediators, such as mental health and social support, when addressing the negative outcomes of witnessing PDV.

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  1. In Canada in 2019, of the 107,810 people aged 15 and over who experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) 79% were women. As in previous years, 2019 rates of IPV were more than 3.5 times higher among women than among men (536 versus 149 per 100,000 population). & Studies from Canada & U.S. show men who assault their wives are more likely to be emotionally dependent, insecure and low in self-esteem, and are
    more likely to find it difficult to control their impulses (33). They are also more likely than their non-violent peers to exhibit greater anger and hostility, to be depressed and to score high on certain scales of personality disorder, including antisocial, aggressive and borderline personality disorders (76). I find it fascinating the lengths this study went to avoid naming the SEX that commits the most violence.

  2. Or genetic children of parents who suffer from brain disorders that cause destructive behavior and lack of social constructiveness (like psychosis, depression, low stress threshold) are more likely to have the same brain disorders, and as adoptions mostly come from such backgrounds, the results would be similar even among unrelated families? How long are we in the scientific community going to tolerate endlessly rehashing the same biased, uninspired, retrogressive “studies”, just so some young person can get a degree or make their bones? People in the real world are suffering for material reasons. You offer zero solutions, just continued obfuscation of this fictional concept of ‘trauma’. It’s chickens and eggs. Statistics are not science. You resolve the causal confusion by being pragmatic: there are children who go through difficult scenarios unrelated to parents’ disordered behaviors that are NOT “traumatized”, so these types of results indicate a genetic, not a social causal basis! Social factors are not causes in material neuroscience, and dealing with the language of such superstitions hasn’t helped heal a single person in human history and we all know it. This shouldn’t be on Neuroscience. Nduroscience is implementing material methods to resolve material disorders at the root level of reproducible, measurable human phenomena. It’s ideological confusion like this that morally disgusts me in the context of the objective and utter failure of the American so-called mental health system. It’s sheer religion masquerading as government or professional sanctioned medical technology.

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