As the field of clinical psychological care for children and adolescents evolves, more confounding factors, such as substance abuse in the home or economic status have emerged as issues that can affect the mental health of today’s youth. Previous studies in the field of adverse childhood experiences have explored the effects of direct parental violence as well as inter-parental violence. However, witnessing violence on a sibling is a potential source of trauma that is still understudied.
We recently spoke over Zoom with Dr. Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at University of New Hampshire. She primarily researches the links between adolescents’ relationships with their families and how these links may affect their development. She co-authored a recent study examining how witnessing a parent assault a sibling can be a potential source of major childhood trauma. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Why did you decide to undertake this study?
I have been working on studies around sibling victimization now for a number of years. Possibly witnessing sibling victimization can, as was shown in the study, be traumatic. For children and adolescents, it seemed like a natural extension of the work that I was already doing. I am a strong believer in trying to get information out there about all forms of family violence and hoping to have an impact to lessen the occurrence of it in families.
What is the working definition for victimization?
In this case, it was exposure actually seeing, not hearing, a parent victimizing a sibling. Victimization is an umbrella term. Typically, it includes psychological victimization, which is calling someone names, threatening them. It can include physical victimization as well, which we’ve broken our past work into mild versus severe, with the distinguishing feature being if there’s an injury or a weapon is used. Another form of victimization we have looked at is property victimization where things are destroyed or stolen. We have not looked at sexual victimization. In the literature that’s broken out into its own.
Why do you think that childhood exposure to parental violence against a sibling has been under studied for so long?
I think the focus has been on domestic violence and parental violence and not really thinking about a wider, more comprehensive approach to family violence. Obviously, parent-child maltreatment is considered a part of family violence and is looked into but siblings, it’s a lot more time and effort to explore everybody in the family and what their exposures are.
In the study, you said that you believe that adolescents would report more exposure to parental violence than children. What led you to that conclusion?
What we were looking at was lifetime exposure. They’ve been around a little bit longer. Another factor may be who reported the data. In the case of this data set, we were able to ask adolescents directly, where with children nine and under we were asking parents, so there may have been some social desirability concerns there. The parents may not have been aware if their children were exposed as well.
You said that the study assessed directly seeing a parent assaulting a sibling, and data wasn’t collected on hearing about it or learning about the abuse from other mediums. Can you anticipate similar negative effects based on this study?
I can tell you from the literature on children witnessing domestic violence that children often report hearing things that go on between the adults in the household and actually can provide quite detailed accounts, even children very young, preschool age. I would imagine we would see a similar pattern here. There is one study that was a retrospective of adults saying that they had heard their parents victimizing their sibling. I do think that children and adolescents could give detailed accounts of hearing. I would expect based on the literature that it would be traumatizing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get at that. I would have loved to have gotten that information as well and been able to combine it with seeing. Being able to analyze, does it make a difference? If you hear it versus see it?
Do you believe that the research and other similar studies will lead to a change in clinical site child psychology in the near future?
I do. I don’t think I’m the only voice here on this. I know there’s some researchers in social work, also in the family violence literature, and some clinicians that would be proponents of this. As I mentioned in the article, not much is known about this. There are a few studies, we’re not the first. But we were able to lend some weight to this call for this to be considered as an adverse childhood experience, given the nature of the data. We have three national data sets. We could talk at a national level, it wasn’t a convenient sample or a particularly gender restricted sample.