|October 18, 2001
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
"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
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
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
Source: Maureen McInaney