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Damage to abused mothers' children starts early, is often severe

ANN ARBOR—Many children whose mothers are emotionally or physically abused develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a University of Michigan study forthcoming in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

More than half of the 64 children studied suffered from unwanted, intrusive memories or "flashbacks" of the violence, and 42 percent had sleep problems, difficulty concentrating or other symptoms of traumatic arousal, such as extreme vigilance.

About 3.3 million children each year are estimated to witness the domestic abuse of their mothers.

A related study, forthcoming in the January 1988 issue of the Journal of Emotional Abuse, by U-M psychologist Sandra Graham-Bermann and Michigan State University psychologist Alytia Levendosky, found that exposure to their mother's emotional or physical abuse was linked to significant behavioral and emotional problems in children as young as preschool-age.

"You don't have to wait for years to see the effects on children when their mothers are abused," says Graham-Bermann. "It shows up while they're still very young in a variety of ways, especially the way they act toward other children."

For the preschool study, pairs of trained observers recorded the social interactions and emotional adjustment of 25 children of battered women and 26 children from nonviolent homes. Each child was observed at play in a small group setting on three separate occasions.

Children of battered women showed higher rates of sadness, depression, worry and frustration than peers from nonviolent homes. Their emotional responses to events were less appropriate, and they were more likely to express anger and frustration by hitting, biting or slapping others, even when unprovoked. They were also found to verbally abuse their peers, by insulting them and calling them names, more than did children from nonviolent families.

Children of abused mothers were also more likely to cope with stressful situations by withdrawing or avoiding interpersonal contact. "Since a crucial developmental task for preschoolers is to develop appropriate and successful social relationships, the use of avoidance and withdrawal sets the child apart and reduces the possibility of learning to resolve problems with others," note Graham-Bermann and Levendosky.

These damaging effects occurred even when the actual physical abuse of mothers was infrequent, the researchers report. "After a woman has been hit once, you don't have to do it again for a long time," says Graham-Bermann. "The trauma caused by one incident of physical violence becomes chronic, for the child as well as the mother. They both live with the fear that someone's going to get hurt."

For the study examining how post-traumatic stress symptoms in school-age children were related to exposure to their mother's abuse, the researchers studied 64 children ranging in age from 7 to 12. During the past year, 60 percent of these children had been eye-witnesses to violence against their mothers. The violence ranged from verbal threats to severe physical aggression, including punching and kicking. In the course of a year, the children were exposed to an average of 72 such incidents.

Using information from the children's teachers as well as their mothers, the researchers found that 13 percent of the children met all the criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These included being exposed to, and intensely upset by, the violence toward the mother. About one-third of the children either had intrusive memories of the violence or tried to avoid thinking about it. About 25 percent were hyper-vigilant and startled easily. Half of the children were irritable and had trouble thinking or paying attention. Boys were as likely as girls to display these and other symptoms of PTSD.

"When children are having problems in school, it's important to ask questions about violence that may be going on in the family," says Graham-Bermann.