Aggressive behavior of children exposed to intimate partner violence: an examination of maternal mental health, maternal warmth and child maltreatment

Child Abuse Negl. 2013 Aug;37(8):520-30. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.12.006. Epub 2013 Jan 14.


Objectives: Over 4.5 million children each year are exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV). Furthermore, IPV rarely occurs without other forms of violence and aggression in the home. IPV is associated with mental health and parenting problems in mothers, and children experience a wide variety of short-term social adjustment and emotional difficulties, including behavioral problems. The current study investigated the influence of IPV exposure on children's aggressive behavior, and tested if this relation was mediated by poor maternal mental health, and, in turn, by maternal warmth and child maltreatment, and moderated by children's age and gender. Study findings highlight the indirect consequences of IPV in the home on children's aggressive behavior.

Methods: Secondary data analysis using structural equation modeling (SEM) was conducted with the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW). Children were between the ages of 3-8 (n = 1,161). Mothers reported past year frequency of phsycial assualt by their partner, frequency of child psychological and physical abuse, maternal mental health, and children's aggressive behavior problems. Maternal warmth was measured by observation.

Results: IPV was significantly related to poor maternal mental health. Poor maternal mental health was associated with more child aggressive behavior, lower maternal warmth, and more frequent child physical and psychological abuse. Psychological abuse and low maternal warmth were directly related to more aggressive behavior while IPV exposure and physical abuse were not directly associated with aggressive behavior. Neither age nor gender moderated the modeled paths.

Conclusions: Expanding knowledge about child outcomes is especially critical for children who were involved in investigations of child maltreatment by child protective services (CPS) in order to identify relevant risk factors that can lead to interventions. The results identified maternal mental health as an important variable in mediating the relationship between IPV exposure and aggressive behavior. One implication is for multicomponent family interventions that could be tailored toward helping the mother cope with such mental health issues while also addressing deficits in children's social behavior development.

Keywords: Aggressive behavior; Child maltreatment; Domestic violence exposure; Intimate partner violence exposure; Maternal mental health; Maternal warmth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology
  • Child Behavior Disorders / etiology*
  • Child Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Child Welfare
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Domestic Violence
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Maternal Welfare*
  • Mental Disorders / complications
  • Middle Aged
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Sexual Partners / psychology
  • Spouse Abuse / psychology*
  • Young Adult