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October 18, 2001

Study Finds Daughters Resilient to Domestic Violence

Many children exposed to the battering of their mothers experience serious negative consequences. However, in recent UCSF studies, adult women reported that, despite substantial suffering in a violent home, they can go on to have productive lives and successful relationships.

These women attributed much of their success to the fact that they were able to find mentors and activities outside the home, says Janice C. Humphreys, PhD, RN, associate professor in the UCSF department of family health care nursing.

Findings from her most recent research appear in the fall issues of the Journal of Nursing Scholarship and the Journal of Family Nursing. The studies are among the first to use a life history method to chronicle the experience of children growing up in homes where the mother is regularly abused.

During childhood and adolescence, when study participants reported anger, rebellion, and sometimes serious depression, they also described the role of activities outside of the home in helping them overcome these negative feelings.

These activities included academics, school-based sports and clubs, music and other arts, as well as play with close friends.

"Involvement in activities outside their homes provided them with a legitimate reason for not being around the violence and opportunities for success, support and independence. In their outside activities, participants were encouraged, grounded, and shown what the world could be like," explains Humphreys.

As they moved into adulthood, their strong sense of themselves, their perseverance, and their general optimism gave them the additional internal sustenance they needed, she explains.

"These women described battling back against their circumstances by asserting themselves and their goals. They had the will to do or to be something. They drew from themselves, but were also aided by friends, teachers and counselors.

In addition, they acknowledged the need to take time for fun to keep their spirits up," Humphreys says.

They also reported consciously seeking to heal themselves by engaging in formal or informal counseling to help them uncover the past.

"They recollected a need to find out what had actually happened and to understand the context of the events as a means to move beyond the past. Most participants spoke of this adaptation as a lifelong process," says Humphreys.

And while much research notes that children tend to blame themselves for the personal abuse they experience, she adds, "This was not the case for these resilient daughters.

It seems likely that the more children understand about family violence, the less likely they are to blame themselves."

This suggests an ongoing need for health care providers to assess routinely for all kinds of family violence.

"Less obvious problems like depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse occurred even with resilient daughters of battered women. However, their experience suggests that these health concerns are amenable to treatment once they are identified," Humphreys adds.

In these studies, investigators gathered life histories from ten adult daughters of abused women and examined the dynamic of resilience through their major life "turnings" and adaptations.

Identified turning points included: separation and/or divorce of parents, family relocation, transition to high school, travel, going to college/pursuing higher education/new job, marriage and motherhood, and divorce.

Adaptations (described as changes that have major effects on a person's life and basic relations with others) included: vigilance, fear and worry, anger, involvement in activities outside the home, perseverance and optimism, healing self, and uncovering the past.

As children, study participants reported being constantly worried and afraid - worried about what their fathers might do and afraid that someone else would find out about the violence. "Often they were embarrassed about their families and described trying to blend in so that other people would not notice them, as a means of keeping the family secret," says Humphreys.

"As participants moved through school age and into adolescence, they described the anger they felt toward their mothers or both parents. Interestingly, none of the participants reported being angry only with their father," she adds.

Study participants ranged in age from 20 to 40 years. The majority were European-American, one was African-American, and one was Chinese-American. Five of the women were either married or in committed relationships at the time of their participation; four had children.

Nine described themselves as sexually attracted to men and one described herself as lesbian. All of them had grown up in homes in which their fathers or stepfathers frequently hurt their mothers.

Four of these women had experienced abuse themselves; one was sexually assaulted by a relative on a single occasion, and three others were regularly physically abused. Four women reported a history of parental substance abuse, three fathers abused substances, and both parents of one participant were addicted to drugs.

Two women reported periods in their 20s when they struggled with weight problems. Two other participants reported suffering periods of depression.

One of these also reported a history of substance abuse and an attempted suicide. All sought counseling and treatment as adults and at the time of their participation in the studies, reported that their symptoms were under control.

Socioeconomic status during childhood ranged from very low income to upper-middle income.

UCSF News Release
Source: Maureen McInaney


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