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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A narrative analysis of the stories of children who witness domestic abuse Douglas, Stephen


It is estimated that over 500,000 Canadian homes live with family violence (B.C./Yukon Society of Transition Houses, 1995). Research in the past decade has examined the relationship between spousal abuse and childhood adjustment assessed through behavior. The cognitive-emotional processes through which a child attempts to adjust to a domestic atmosphere of violence, however, remain largely unexplored. This study therefore sought to gain insight into the internal working models of children who witness domestic violence. Twenty-five children between the ages of 7 and 12 were interviewed using the projective technique of storytelling, prior to participating in the Children Who Witness Abuse Program operated by three Lower Mainland Vancouver agencies. Their temperament was rated along the dimensions of Emotionality, Activity, and Sociability by the group counsellors at the end of the ten-week program using the Colorado Childhood Temperament Inventory (Buss & Plomin, 1984). Subjective observations of behavioral styles within the group were also'noted. This was an exploratory study. In the analysis, life scripts were identified from the stories narrated by these children. Individually, each child's cognitive interpretations, affective experience, and developmental needs were examined to suggest an appropriate therapeutic response. Three clusters of life scripts were identified. One cluster includes children with the life script, "You can/must figure it out/solve the problem/ fix it." The second cluster expresses, "I must get what I want." The third cluster shares a common perception, "The world is a dangerous place, so..." The conclusion to this script varies, according to which the study has identified five subgroups; "...get help," "...you will feel sad," "...get away and hide," "...you'll get hurt," and "...don't worry, it will get better and you will feel happy then." These clusters aid counsellors and group facilitators in recognizing children's adjustment processes and needs. In the discussion, the intermediary role of temperament was examined. Results were evaluated according to the Cycle-of-Violence Hypothesis, family systems, attachment theory, and literature on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, the role of variables cited in previous studies was considered, including gender, time since separation, shelter versus non-shelter populations, position within their family constellation, ongoing contact with the abusive parent, parents' abuse of drugs or alcohol, and physical, sexual, or emotional abuse experienced directly by the children. The merits of the storytelling interview as an intake instrument have been demonstrated. This study has generated tentative hypotheses to be tested for validity through future research. This may contribute to our understanding of the affective and cognitive interpretations of children who witness domestic abuse that, in turn, can enhance their therapists' interventions.

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