New research suggests that
children who are exposed to domestic violence and depressed or anxious parents
are more likely to lag in developing language, motor and social skills.
It's not clear that these
types of problems in the household actually cause kids to fail to reach
developmental milestones as quickly as other children, and it's possible that
there's no direct connection.
Still, the researchers said
the findings point to the importance of screening children for signs that
they're exposed to violence or parental stress, because social workers could
then try to help them stay on track in terms of development.
that fail to attain important developmental milestones should be screened for
intimate-partner violence and parental psychological distress so that these
risk factors may also be addressed if present," said Amy Lewis Gilbert, an
assistant professor of paediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine
and the lead author of the study, which was published in the December issue of
the journal Paediatrics.
Domestic violence involving
couples in relationships affects an estimated 1.5 million women and 835 000 men
in the United States each year, according to the study.
The numbers actually may be
much higher, however, because some cases aren't reported. A 2011 study that
reviewed existing research suggested that domestic violence affects 10 million
children each year.
"We know unequivocally
that family violence and parents' psychological stress affect children across
the age spectrum," said Susan Campbell, a psychology professor at the
University of Pittsburgh who is familiar with the study's findings.
Affected children have a tougher time
psychologically, don't get along as well with other kids and do worse at
school, she said.
It's difficult to figure
out exactly how these and other factors affect kids, Campbell said, but they
can be harmed by harsh and negative parenting, a lack of parental warmth and
lack of support for learning.
In the new study, researchers
looked at nearly 17 000 children under the age of 6 who were treated at four paediatric
clinics in Indianapolis from 2004 to 2013. The parents of the children took
surveys, and the study included an analysis of their answers.
Milestones of development
Almost half the kids were
black, and 82% were on Medicaid or another public insurance. Parents of 2.5% of
the kids reported domestic violence, and 12% showed signs of depression,
anxiety or both.
Overall, more than
one-third of the children hadn't reached at least one of several milestones of
The researchers, who
adjusted their statistics to account for gender and ethnicity, found that kids
whose parents were stressed or had experienced domestic violence or both were
more likely than others to have problems with language, social skills and
Campbell said the study has
several weaknesses, however. It may have missed cases of domestic violence,
depression and anxiety in parents, she said, and the findings don't account for
the possible effects of two major factors: how much education the parents had
and the number of parents who remain in the family.
"This is not a great
study, but the message is important," she said. "If primary-care paediatricians
and nurse practitioners are convinced of the lethal effects of family risk on
children's development, maybe they will be more likely to provide referrals for
"Of course, this is a
whole other topic, as there are not nearly enough quality services available
for children living in families requiring a range of social services, even
though decades of research underscores their effectiveness," she said.
For more about child
development, try the US National Library of Medicine.
(Picture: Stressed parents from Shutterstock)