An estimated one in three women has experienced some form of intimate partner violence (IPV), but it can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Unfortunately, during the course of the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns, rates of intimate partner violence have increased, with victims facing fewer options to leave or spend time elsewhere.
Dr Caroline Piotrowski from the University of Manitoba researches intimate partner violence, its impact on children, and the increase in incidents during the pandemic. She describes how the contagion of violence can spread between those affected to those around them, and how its damage can be lessened and unlearned to stop it from spreading any further.
Find more about her research at Sibsmattertoo.ca
Read her original research at: doi.org/10.1111/sode.12589
Image source: SewCream Studio / Shutterstock
This transcript is automatically generated.
Hello, and welcome to ResearchPod. I’m Will Mountford, and today we’re going to be talking about issues that some listeners may find upsetting, so discretion is advised.
An estimated one in three women worldwide has experienced some form of intimate partner violence, though it affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Unfortunately, during the course of the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns, rates of intimate partner violence have increased, with victims facing fewer options to leave or spend time elsewhere.
Dr Caroline Piotrowski is a developmental psychologist specialising in studying adverse childhood experiences, particularly how growing up in a home with violence can negatively affect children and their siblings. Her research looks at how the contagion of violence can spread between those affected to those around them, and most crucially, how its damage can be lessened and unlearned to stop it from spreading any further.
Caroline, hello, thanks for joining us.
Good morning, how are you?
I’m very well. For my own sake, and for everyone listening at home, could you tell us a bit about yourself, some of your academic background, and what brings us here today?
Well, I’m delighted to be here today, and my background is in developmental psychology. So I’ve studied children and how they grow and develop over time. And when you study children, you also have to study their families as well, because their families are such an important influence on them. So I like to study how children grow and develop under situations that are quite challenging, quite difficult, and we call those adverse childhood experiences.
And so the one that we’ll be talking about today is how children deal with growing up in a home where there is violence either between their parents, or between their parent and their parent’s romantic partner, who may not live at home and may not be their other parent.
Well, to be a little indelicate, and to be frank, this sounds like hard work to do. It sounds like challenging, potentially traumatising work to do. What in your career led you to this research? And I mean, how do you cope?
Doing this type of research evolved over time. One thing just quite naturally led to the next. So I began my career researching how siblings got along together at home, just children playing at home with their mum. And my focus in my graduate studies was on how they managed conflicts with each other and how they invited or engaged their mum in their conflicts when they were not getting along.
And that led to my interest in how conflicts between parents influenced how brothers and sisters get along with each other. And then that expanded to the impact of exposure to violent behaviour in the home on children.
So it’s been a very gradual development over the years. And I think one of the things that is very helpful in this research is to understand that all of our findings are very helpful to families. They do inform clinicians and social workers and teachers and all kinds of people that work and support with families. And so I think that is definitely a bright side to the work that we do.
To pick apart some of the definitions before we get into the specifics of your research, you mentioned there that there was the violence between children’s parents and their parent and a spouse or romantic partner. And I think in the literature, this is domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Is that right?
Yes, intimate partner violence, as we call it, goes by many names. And so as you mentioned, it can also be called domestic violence, family violence, but IPV or interpartner violence, as we call it, broadly includes any form of violence between partners. Most people think of physical violence that happens, but it also includes sexual violence, psychological violence, which is belittling or humiliating or name calling.
It also encompasses other forms of harm, such as neglect or financial abuse. And as you mentioned, it can be perpetrated by a current spouse or husband or wife, but also by a past spouse and ex-partner, as well as a romantic partner, so a dating partner, whether they share a home with each other or not.
And so violence can occur during conflict between partners, but often it does not. Often violence occurs without a conflict going on.
And what are some of the incidence rates looking at research that you do in North America and Canada, and how broadly transferable are they to other societies around the globe?
Well, it occurs disturbingly often, unfortunately. So the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women worldwide has experienced violence of some form with an intimate partner. And in Canada, over 40% of women and girls aged 15 and older report experiencing some form of intimate partner violence. And we are including dating relationships during the teenage years there. The numbers are similar in the United States.
They’re similar in other countries as well. And very unfortunately, the rates increased during the pandemic. And this was seen in many countries around the world, not just in North America, because unfortunately, people were required to spend more time at home together with fewer options to leave or spend time elsewhere and in a violent home that had very negative repercussions.
And in some of the research that we’re looking at today, I understand that it’s all pulling from the one data set that’s been going on for several years, as I understand it. Could you tell us more about that and some of the other research that you’ve done from this data set?
Sure. The papers that I’m talking about today and the results are all based on a data set that I collected here in Winnipeg, which is in a province called Manitoba in Canada. And it included a group of families with a history of intimate partner violence, but also a matching group of families that did not report this history. And we wanted a diverse group of families, so we recruited as broadly as we could.
There are primarily a group of single parent, low income families with school aged children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. And what was wonderfully unique about our study was that we included observation, which many studies don’t do.
They simply ask moms and children questions and interview them, which is fair enough. But in our study, the children spent some time together in a room by themselves without their mom or another adult present. And we recorded what they did with each other, the activities that they chose to do, what they didn’t do with each other. And then we coded how they treated each other.
And so this data set has been very valuable because we’re not just talking about what mothers and children think and feel, we’re also able to talk about what they did.
The observation that you’re doing, they seemed quite time bound. Does that reflect necessarily the timeline of incidents where that stress might be something that doesn’t manifest for months, if not years? If you’re observing these people for a couple of hours, for a couple of days or for a couple of months, do you get to see the whole of how that trauma is managed and expressed and dealt with?
Well, as researchers, we always do our best. And the reason we always say more research is needed, which is one of our favourite things to say, is that no research study is perfect. And so we try as hard as we can to capture the nature of children’s experience and their mother’s experience. But it’s never perfect.
And so whether we’re using interviews or surveys or using our observation, all of these are information gathering tools, but none of them will ever be perfect, which is why we use multiple methods and then try and look at all of them together and how they agree with each other and disagree with each other. And it’s also very important to get the perspective of the family members themselves. So mothers are a wonderful source of information about how their children are doing and how their children are getting along with each other.
And we pay close attention to what they say, but we also pay close attention to what the children themselves say about their experience and about each other, whether it’s good or bad. And they often have plenty to say about their brother or sister. And some of it is quite charming and delightful, I have to say. So we are always doing our best to gather as much information as we can.
And it’s also important for different research studies to agree with each other, which is why it’s a very good idea for other researchers to do the same kind of work that I’m doing and to do it in other parts of the world and with other families from other backgrounds so that we can find if there is an element of universal shared human experience here so that we can all use the same tools for helping and healing whenever that’s needed.
That’s something that stood out to me in your research is the notion that violence is contagious, that it spreads from person to person, that there is to draw a pandemic allegory exposure and then that you are a carrier, that you bear these behaviours, that you carry these attitudes forwards. Could you maybe give us an overview of how violence can spread from partner to child to sibling and then maybe further out from there?
Well, it certainly is the case that children are influenced by what happens between their parents, for good or for bad. And if children actually see or witness violent behaviour, they may well imitate it in their relationships with their friends or peers at school or also with their brothers and sisters at home. But violence is a learned behaviour and because you learn it, you can also unlearn it. You can learn other behaviours to replace it as well. And that’s the value of this kind of research is that if children do learn to imitate violent behaviour that they have seen, it doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to repeat it in their other relationships. They certainly can learn other ways and means of handling their feelings, of handling disagreements with others.
But I did want to point out that the word we use here is exposure to violence rather than witnessing because children are impacted by the violence between their parents or between their parent and a romantic partner even if they’re not in the same room when the violence occurs, even if they are asleep at the time or even if they’re not at home at all.
And that’s because children are indirectly affected by the violence that their parent experiences through lots of different ways and means such as the parent is now, of course, increasingly stressed by the violence they have experienced. They may be feeling depressed, they may be feeling anxious, they may be feeling afraid, all for very good reasons.
They may have suffered a physical injury or have other illnesses or problems with their health because of the violence. So there’s lots of ways that children can be indirectly affected by the violence even if they never actually see what happens to their mum or between their mum and dad.
When regarding the spread of behaviour from those exposed to it kind of down the line, there might have been treatment differences between mothers, fathers and other caregivers leading into the children relationship that they then have with their sibling.
No, that’s very true. And there are many programmes targeting fathers. And those are very, very important programmes because even though children have experienced violence between their parents in the home or between their mother and her partner in the home, their relationship with their father is important and continues to be important.
And so having men who are interested in being better fathers, in improving their relationships with their children, just like we have mothers who are interested in being better mothers and improving their relationships with their children is incredibly important. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many interventions or programmes for men as there are for women. And that is something that does need to change, especially for men who are working very hard to do the best they can in their fathering and are looking for help and assistance to help them do that.
The sibling element of your work that we’re looking at, especially here today, could you drill into some of the detail around that and how the sibling relationship is affected by that exposure, how that learned behaviour is either transferred or resolved?
Well, of course, children always have a challenging time getting along with their siblings in any family. We all know that the sibling relationship is notoriously ambivalent. They’re best friends one moment and worst enemies the next and often swing back and forth between the two at a moment’s notice, which is often quite puzzling and surprising to parents.
But in a violent home, children are exposed to this more extreme form of stress. Sometimes it only happens once or twice, but sometimes it can happen chronically over a long period of time in a child’s life, over weeks or months or years, unfortunately.
So there are several patterns of response to highly stressful situations that have been documented for children. Some will sound familiar, such as the fight or flight or freeze response, but also there is what’s called the tend and befriend response or adaptation or submission or avoidance. And depending upon the child, all of these are responses to an overwhelmingly stressful situation or to what’s called toxic stress.
And it’s important to remember that children do not consciously choose how to respond. Their reaction is moulded by their personality, their past history, their genetic inheritance, by lots of factors. And so some children are very quiet, keep to themselves, and other children are very aggressive and act out at school and are very noticeable. And all of these different patterns of behaviour are reactions to the child’s stress level. And so we have to keep in mind as well that many children have what are called subclinical symptoms.
So they are experiencing concerns or issues that do not meet the threshold or do not qualify for a clinical mental health diagnosis, but they are certainly experiencing difficulties serious enough to affect their daily functioning at home and at school and the quality of their relationships.
And so even though children might be quiet and keeping to themselves and not causing a problem at home or at school, that doesn’t mean that they’re doing okay. They still might need some attention and some assistance.
Is there any matching, I suppose, between the internal response and the external manifestation of it? Or do they vary if someone is becoming withdrawn, if someone is having a, like you said, those fight/flight or tend/befriend responses, do they always match up with an internal experience of stress versus an external manifestation, or are there different ways that those can combine and manifest?
Oh, there are many different ways. Human behaviour is complex and sophisticated, and that’s what makes the study of it fascinating, but also it’s what makes helping people challenging. So people who have studied the timing and type of response that children have, this is called pathways or trauma trajectories that children have in response to toxic stress.
Some children have an immediate, very large increase in difficulties or symptoms with a gradual decline over time. Others have a much smaller response that fades quite quickly. Still others have a very sizable increase in problems or difficulties that stays relatively high over time, and research is still working on figuring out why children have these differing patterns of response over time and how best to help those who have symptoms that stay stubbornly high.
And of course, brothers and sisters in the same family are affected very differently by their exposure to intimate partner violence. They are different people and they have different responses.
Yes, I think in your research, this was different models of warmth, hostility, and disengagement. Am I along the right kind of lines there?
Very true. Brothers and sisters in the same family are affected differently by their exposure to intimate partner violence. One study that we did found that there are some similarities, such as feelings of sadness or depressive symptoms are more likely to be shared by siblings. But overall, each child reacts in their own way. And that makes sense, given that they are different ages, typically, sometimes different genders, they have different personalities, and other factors are different.
They might have been exposed to different events in the home, or different lengths of time exposed to violence. So not too surprisingly, those children with fewer problems or symptoms on average got along better with their brother or sister than those children with fewer symptoms.
And children with the greatest adjustment problems had sibling relationships that were less warm, that were more hostile, and that had higher levels of disengagement. And that means that when they were alone in that room, together with different activities, they kept to themselves, they didn’t pay as much attention to each other, or do things with each other as much as other children. But there is another side to this story.
We recently had a very interesting finding about pro-social behaviour between siblings. And we found that brothers and sisters who were exposed to intimate partner violence engaged in just as much pro-social behaviour with each other, such as helping and sharing as siblings who were not exposed to violence.
And their pro-social behaviour was not associated with their adjustment problems or their mental health symptoms. So this is exciting because it shows the resilience of these children. Some may have more troubled sibling relationships, but they can still be kind and caring with one another despite those challenges.
And these pro-social behaviours can be encouraged and supported by parents, by teachers, by other adults, and other researchers have even suggested that children who engage in more pro-social behaviour may have fewer mental health problems over time, so that literally helping others helps you. So this is a promising avenue for future research and for interventions with children who’ve been exposed to intimate partner violence.
Yes, I suppose the hope, the goal that I’d like to come away from this conversation with knowing is that there is a way for healing to occur, that any trauma, any damage is not necessarily lasting, that it can be recovered from. Is that something that your work identifies? Is that something that you do see other avenues forward with?
That is definitely true. Healing and recovery are both entirely possible. And I’m currently doing a project that addresses exactly that, healing in families who have experienced intimate partner violence. So we are getting ready to pilot or do our very first trial of an intervention program starting in the new year, in January, that helps mothers and their children recover from trauma and rebuild their relationships with each other.
And this program has been used successfully in the United States and elsewhere in the world before, but this is the first time that we are implementing it in Canada. And we are very excited and hopeful that we will see a similar success.
And in the past, it has shown that these adjustment difficulties that children demonstrate decline significantly after this type of program. The mother’s mental health is also significantly improved and their relationships, both with each other as siblings, but also with their mother, also improve. So we’re very optimistic and very hopeful that we will see these same results here as well.
Is that something that if there are any families in Manitoba who want to get involved or maybe in kind of the wider area, they could get involved with, where would they find out more information and maybe sign up?
We’re starting the intervention program in another location, actually, which is good because we have multiple sites that will be participating in this study. So the very first families who participate are living in Calgary, Alberta. And once we have piloted it there and tested it out and make sure it’s working properly, we will also be doing the study in Winnipeg, Manitoba as well.
But for anyone who’s interested in just finding out more and perhaps understanding their past history better or the experience of their friends or their family or their loved ones who may have experienced intimate partner violence, I do have a website that’s called sibsmatter2too.ca. And we try to post the information from our research studies in a very friendly way, easy to understand way.
It’s designed for anyone to access the results regardless of their background. So you wouldn’t need to be a researcher to take a look and hopefully find something that is of interest and value.
Dr. Piotrowski, thank you so much for your time today.