Violence in the home or “domestic abuse” has grown to be one of society’s most shameful scourges. In addition to the subordinated spouse, the children of violent homes must also be considered as victims whether or not they have been physically abused or not. While the many methods by which abuse is inflicted vary, the effects it has on the mental and emotional health of its victims remain alarming. Of all these effects, one of the most vital and long term ones is the effect on a child’s formation of gender and identity. Statement of the Problem
Childhood is typically the time where core values and identity is formed. Most theories on human growth and development advance the idea that individual identity is a result of combined internal and external factors in an individual’s environment. But what if that environment exposes a child to violence and abuse committed by his or her own parents? This study aims to examine the implications and effects of exposure and experience of domestic violence in the home in relation to children’s formation and perception of identity. II. Review of Related Literature
At the mention of “domestic abuse,” most people’s first reaction is “wife battery” or spousal abuse. However, It is not only the beleaguered spouse who suffers the effects of an abusive domestic life. Due to their age and dependence on their parents, children are among the hardest hit by the effects of domestic abuse. While they may not necessarily receive direct physical or verbal abuse from their parents, exposure to domestic violence alone can affect their cognitive development and perceptions not only of gender roles but also their sense of identity.
Women are commonly the victims in abusive relationships. Because of their own coping problems and stress, their ability to function in their maternal parenting capacity is often impaired leaving the children to fend for themselves in terms of interpreting and developing a form of understanding of their home situation (Levendosky and Graham-Bermann, 2001, pp. 172-173) The ways and degrees by which children are exposed to domestic violence vary. In some cases of spousal battery, pregnant women have had their bellies punched by their husbands.
In other cases, the children are hit while in the act of defending their mothers or distracting their fathers (Laing, 1). A study conducted by English, Marshall and Stewart (2003) reveal that the effects of domestic violence are not limited to children who directly experience it. Even just by witnessing the action of violence may affect a child’s perception of relationships and violence (p. 44) Children who have been exposed to domestic violence are observed to demonstrate learning and intellectual impairment. Such learning includes verbal and problem solving skills as well as cognitive development and reasoning.
They may also experience difficulties developing social skills and interpersonal relationships (Huth-Bocks, Levendosky and Semel, 2001, p. 270). In terms of identity and personality development, there is a belief that children, particularly males, who grow up in abusive and violent home environments may in turn, develop a tendency towards violence and abuse (Hendry, 1998, p. 1). Female children on the other hand, are more prone towards psychological and social weakness and emotional vulnerability (Levendosky and Graham-Bermann, 2001, pp. 172).
Knafo and Schwartz (2004) state that there is a strong link between children’s formation of identity and values and the values and behavior of their parents. They defined this transference of values and formation of identity in two stages: exploration and commitment. According to Knafo and Schwartz, in the period that a child starts developing identity, they take into consideration all factors, value systems and behaviors present in their environment. From here, they “explore” or try out “identity alternatives” before selecting and committing to one identity (p.
440) In a household, the primary source of value systems and behaviors are the parents. Children growing up in abusive households may therefore learn to accept violence as a part of life and thus integrate such orientations in the formation of their own identity and values. De Ruyter and Conroy (2002) define identity as a product of ideals. They argue that instead of looking to past personal characteristics as basis of identity, people should look at the “ideal” or type of person that people would like to become in the future.
This would then govern what choices they make in determining behaviors and values to adopt (pp. 510-511) Again, this may become problematic with children in violent homes. In homes where one partner aggressively asserts dominance over the other, children are given a front seat view of the pros and cons of dominance and violent behavior. More often than not, there is an instinct of self-preservation that may lead children to develop a preference for developing a more dominant identity. Humans base their recognition of self on experiences and their perceived relevance to it (Guardo and Bohan, 1971, p. 1910).
These experiences contribute to a sense of “personeity” that becomes the basis for developing a personal identity. Included in these are ideas or “humanity, sexuality, individuality, and continuity” (p. 1910) A person’s understanding and adaptation of roles, identities and things like gender and sexuality are rooted in their experiences. If a child is used to seeing a dominant male figure, the child will then learn to correlate the idea of “maleness” with dominance. Similarly, female children may also develop their own concept of reactions and feminine behaviors by observing and assimilating their mother’s reactions.
Theoretical Framework. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed his theory of the eight stages of growth and development for children and adults (Hoare, 2005 pp19-30). He posits that human beings develop progressively and adapt to situations that they encounter in life. His theory also advances that each stage in an individual’s growth is a venue for developing core values such as trust, autonomy, self-control, identity and the like. How humans develop these values are largely dependent on their interaction and adaptation to their environment at that particular stage. III. Methodology
The researcher proposes to employ a combination of in-depth research of existing literature pertinent to the study in addition to studying a minimum of five documented cases of children between the ages of 6-12 who grew up in abusive households. To do this, the researcher plans to review cases cited in psychology journals as well as possibly conduct interviews with formerly battered women and their children at a woman’s shelter (to be determined which) with regard to their experiences and observations as to behavioral changes they observed within themselves and in each other during and after life in an abusive household.
In the course of this study, the researcher seeks to limit research and data collection to answering the following questions: 1. Is there a correlation between children’s exposure to domestic abuse and formation of gender perception and identity? 2. What are the possible psychological and developmental problems children of abused homes may develop? 3. Do children from abusive homes share any common characteristics? What are the signs educators and caregivers should watch for that may signify psychological problems in children resulting from exposure to domestic abuse?
4. How can adults, counselors and teachers address the problems that may arise from a child’s exposure to domestic abuse? References De Ruyter, D. , ; Conroy, J. (2002, December). The Formation of Identity: the importance of ideals. Oxford Review of Education, 28(4), 509-522. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database. http://search. ebscohost. com/login. aspx? direct=true;db=pbh;AN=7437391;site=ehost-live English, D. , Marshall, D. , ; Stewart, A. (2003, February). Effects of Family Violence on Child
Behavior and Health During Early Childhood. Journal of Family Violence, 18(1), 43-57. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database. http://search. ebscohost. com/login. aspx? direct=true;db=pbh;AN=18331466;site=ehost-live Guardo, C. , ; Bohan, J. (1971, December). DEVELOPMENT OF A SENSE OF SELF- IDENTITY IN CHILDREN. Child Development, 42(6), 1909-1921. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database. http://search. ebscohost. com/login. aspx? direct=true;db=pbh;AN=7253478;site=ehost-live
Hendry, E. (1998, March). Children and Domestic Violence: A Training Imperative. Child Abuse Review, 7(2), 129-134. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database. http://search. ebscohost. com/login. aspx? direct=true;db=pbh;AN=11842884;site=ehost-live Hoare, C. (2005, January). Erikson’s General and Adult Developmental Revisions of Freudian Thought: Outward, Forward, Upward. Journal of Adult Development, 12(1), 19-31. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.