The widespread prevalence of family abuse has been increasingly the focus of media, societal, and scholarly attention. This research paper examines the effects of various forms of family abuse on the psychological development of children, and its long-term consequences for adult functioning. The scope of the paper includes research on the causes of family abuse and a discussion on the need for social interventions to minimize the effects of abuse on children.
The well-rounded development of children is a matter of great societal concern since they constitute the citizens of the future. As such, society has a definite stake in ensuring that its children are nurtured well today, in order that they function as responsible adult members of society tomorrow. This is a well-recognized fact as evidenced by governmental, societal, and legal interventions in providing for the development of children through free education, child care subsidies, and the foster care system. However, as a wide body of research literature indicates, there is little that has been achieved in the area of protecting children from the often devastating consequences of abusive family situations. Whereas this is an area that calls for serious social intervention given alarming statistical evidence that the American family represents an estimated 20% chance of becoming a stage for violence (Witt, 1987, p. 293). It is the purpose of this paper to establish the need for concerted social intervention in protecting children from family abuse. To do so, the paper will research the effects of an abusive family environment on the psychological development of children, and its subsequent impact on the child's ability to function as a responsible adult member of society. Further, given the penultimate objective, the paper will also summarize research findings on the causes of family abuse and possible methods of social intervention. To start with, however, it would be important to establish the critical role family plays in the development of children.
The Importance of The Family as a Social Group
It is common knowledge that the family unit plays an important role in the nurturing and development of children, especially in the early formative years when a child's level of dependence on adults is high. Indeed, while social forces such as religion, education, media, and peer groups can exercise a moderating influence on an individual's psychological and cognitive development, the fact remains that the family unit plays the primary role. As Witt (1987, p. 291) observes, "Ideally, we define the family as the social group to nurture us, instruct us in social and moral values, and protect us from harm. This is the case in virtually every postindustrial society where people...tend to depend emotionally on their immediate family." Logically, therefore, when a family unit fails or falls short of fulfilling its parental and social responsibility in nurturing its children; it often results in adversely affecting a child's immediate and long-term psychological well-being. This is particularly true of children who experience or witness various forms of abuse within the family environment.
Historically, society has always projected the family as an ideal unit of caring interdependence, which brings up children to be responsible adult citizens. To that extent, one would expect families to try and live up to that ideal. Yet, increasingly there are widespread media reports of family abuse. Thus, there seems to be a gap between projected social norms and reality. To explain this apparent dichotomy between social ideals and the prevalence of family abuse, perhaps it would be important to place in context the external influence of the larger social environment on the individual family unit.
Sociocultural Factors That Impact Family Behavior
The fields of psychology, social psychology, and sociology offer several theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon of family violence. David Witt, in his article "A Conflict Theory of Family Violence," (1987, p. 291-300) integrates three such main theories, to suggest that there is a basic conflict between social and cultural norms and the prevention of family violence. Witt points out that firstly, the family is subject to cultural norms, which often suggest various forms of violence as necessary, correct, and good for family members. Common examples are constant reminders of shortcomings, blame for material inadequacies, and failure to be supportive. Such verbally abusive behavior results in creating feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy in individual family members, especially vulnerable children. Secondly, the norms of such a broader culture are repeatedly transmitted through a social learning process, largely within the family. Thirdly, family violence is indirectly encouraged by a society that views the economic failure of the head of a household and the breaking down of marital relationships as unacceptable. Fourth, the propagation of gender stereotypes such as the earning male member and the nurturing female creates further stress, especially in times of recession and unemployment. Fifth, the economic ideology of society vests on strong, hardworking, and wholesome families. The last, the author suggests, is a convenient passing on of responsibility by society given the impact of political and economic policy decisions on unemployment and family benefits. Thus, Witt concludes that the broader social and cultural context encourages conflict and violence in families by the setting up of norms that are not always realistically achievable.
Other research studies support Witt's conclusions that external socioeconomic and cultural factors influence family violence and abuse. For example, a longitudinal investigation study, conducted to test whether violence in the family of origin predisposes an individual to react to stress by aggressing against one's spouse, found that stress predicted marital aggression one year later for women, but not for men. Though this study did not find any effects linked to violence in the family of origin, it did establish the existence of a relationship between work and life stress and marital aggression. Further, the researchers offer an explanation for no stress effects emerging for the men in the study: "Strauss (1980) found that men who were high in marital satisfaction were less likely to be violent toward their wife when they were under high stress. In the present sample...perhaps no stress effect emerged...because the men were enjoying high marital satisfaction." (MacEwen & Barling, 1988, p. 73-83)
While the research conducted by MacEwen and Baring offers a useful framework for further studies in that, it examines the effects of negative perceptions of multiple stressors on marital aggression, it must be pointed out that the study was limited to a small sample size of just 275 couples. In addition, the research design necessitated the selection of only newly married couples in order to record the incidence of violence in the family of origin and pre-marital stress factors. This implies that the men in the group were more likely to be enjoying high marital satisfaction. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this paper, the findings of the study were useful in reiterating Witt's observations on the correlation between work stress and family violence.
One clear inference that can be drawn from the preceding research findings, as Witt (1987, p. 300) points out, is that "producing change in the levels of family violence involves radical change in several aspects of the culture. The goal is to reduce the amount of social stress produced by economic flux and to devalue violence as an appropriate response to stress in other aspects of social life."
Jones & McCurdy (1992, p. 201-215) reach a similar conclusion; post an examination of the relative impact of demographic characteristics of the child, family structure, and economic variables, on types of child abuse and neglect. Finding that physical neglect, as a form of child abuse, is clearly related to economic factors such as low income and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) status, the authors suggest the need for a strong commitment to working with and providing services to families in poverty: "In 1987, the U.S. poverty rate for young children was 23%, nearly 1 out of every 4 children.... An unwillingness to begin to tackle these issues is resulting in the deterioration of the country's major resource: children."
The preceding research findings clearly establish the role of economic stress in creating family violence. This implies the need for social intervention in the area of economic and social welfare policies that aim at reducing the effects of poverty on child rearing practices. In this connection, it is encouraging to note the advent of enlightened management practices by big businesses, based on human behavioral theories of motivation. One such theory is Maslow's Need Hierarchy, which categorizes human needs into deficiency and growth needs. Deficiency needs are defined as physiological, safety, belongingness, and love, and are those that must be satisfied in order for people to be secure and healthy. Growth needs such as esteem and self-actualization, on the other hand, allow individuals to realize their full potential. Using Maslow's model, organizations like Stride Rite Shoe Company in Boston, Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey, and Zale Corporation in Texas have begun to address unfulfilled employee deficiency needs of providing for their children's safety,…