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Family Matters No. 34 - May 1993

Violence in families

The effect on children
Anne Blanchard

Abstract

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the fourth Australian Family Research Conference in February 1993. The author reports on a recent qualitative study that provides first-hand Australian data on children's perceptions of domestic violence and assesses the availability of support services. The study's principal aims were 1) to document the direct experience of children who witness domestic violence in the home; 2) seek the opinions of service providers on the effects of domestic violence they observed in children; 3) to survey the facilities available in Western Australia to assist child victims of family conflict; and 4) make recommendations to fill the anticipated gaps in services.

In 1900 a Swedish writer, Ellen Key, in a spirit of optimism declared that the twentieth century would be the 'Century of the Child' (Segal 1978). She was drawing a comparison with the repression of the Victorian era where children were seen but not heard.

On reflection, however, it seems children of the twentieth century are heard only when what they have to say conforms with the expectations of the adult population. Children's words have not been believed when sensitive issues like child abuse have come to the fore, and in the case of domestic violence, children have been ignored.

We are only now beginning to realise that children are the forgotten victims of the violence which occurs between their parents. While a great deal of attention has been directed to women as the primary victims of domestic violence - and quite rightly so - the effects on children have been overlooked. In terms of attention in the literature, and in service provision as well, children appear on the bottom of the scale, below even the perpetrators of the violence, their fathers. Society continues to perpetuate the myth that children are untouched by the chaos happening around them in their family home.

In contrast, the small amount of literature now being produced affirms the thesis that children are profoundly affected by domestic violence. Living in a home where domestic violence occurs frequently has been equated with living in a war zone or being involved in natural disasters such as fire, earthquakes or cyclones (Anthony 1988). Children from violent homes can exhibit the same sort of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as child refugees from the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia (Kinzie et al 1986) or children living in Northern Ireland (Fraser 1974). However, the further complication associated with family violence is that it not only psychologically and sometimes physically harms the child victims, but also that it is likely to establish patterns of behaviour which may persist through generations.

When we consider the number of children affected by domestic violence in Australia, this is of grave concern. The National Domestic Violence Education Campaign (Mugford 1989) has highlighted the fact that as many as one in three families will be affected by domestic violence. It is universally believed that women's refuges cater for the adult victims of domestic violence. However, at any one time refuges cater for more children than women. Despite this it took a long time for refuges to obtain funding for children's support workers, and there is still no specialised training for these workers who are dealing with the highly traumatised child victims of violence on a daily basis.

THE LITERATURE

It is only over the past decade that literature has begun to appear on the effects of domestic violence on child observers. Although the research suggests the effects are many and varied according to the age of the children, their sex, stage of development, the frequency of the violence, and the amount of support given to the children by adults (Jaffe et al 1990), most of the studies show child witnesses are affected and that they are at risk of short and longer term damage to their overall development.

Studies using control groups and attempting to refine the causal relationships more closely have had mixed results (Hughes 1988). It is difficult to separate family violence from other disastrous contingencies of childhood. Rutter (1983) has produced a concept of 'cumulative stressors', in which he has identified six significant family stressors, of which violence is one. When two or more of these stressors are present the chances are two to four times greater that the child will develop emotional problems. This illustrates not only the complex nature of emotional disturbance in childhood but the fact that family violence is probably most frequently accompanied by other problems.

A number of specific reactions to family violence have been noted (Alessi and Hearn 1984), ranging from psychosomatic symptoms through to fear, anxiety, aggressive behaviour and self-harm. If these behaviours are analysed closely, it is evident that there are no responses to family violence which can be isolated as characteristic of this situation alone. The reactions of children who have witnessed violence in the home are similar to those of children who have witnessed other traumatic events or who have themselves been abused. They represent disruptions of the normal developmental patterns in the children's health and their cognitive, emotional and social development (Jaffe et al 1990).

It is frequently believed that infants and toddlers, having the least developed cognitive understanding of what is happening around them, will be least affected; that the violence will not be understood and therefore go unnoticed by them. On the contrary, infants and toddlers are likely to exhibit psychosomatic disorders, such as stomach-aches, diarrhoea, asthma, enuresis, nightmares and regressive behaviour (Carlson 1984). Infants may suffer emotional neglect because their mothers are extremely stressed through coping with the violence behaviour of their spouses (Hartand and Brassard 1987). Fantuzzo and Lindquist (1989) suggest that infants have the greatest difficulty adjusting to family violence. This becomes particularly significant when it is also considered that family violence is most likely to occur when the children are young (Moore 1979).

The school-age child is likely to have more supports outside the family and so has greater capacity to weather the effects of family violence than the younger child. However, all the literature examining the fate of children of this age, indicates that schooling is at least temporarily disrupted (Wolfe et al 1986; Pressman et al 1989). This may, indeed, have a lasting effect on the child's succeeding educational achievements and ability to negotiate a successful career path in later life.

Because their perception of causal relationships is ego- centric, school- age children may feel guilty that they are the source of the family violence. They also may become isolates at school and distance themselves from social relationships with other children in their embarrassment at their parents behaviour or their need to conceal the family secret. School-age children also are often forced into the role of protecting their siblings (or even their mothers) during severe family conflicts and may therefore be wielding a responsibility well beyond their years.

It is suggested in the literature, however, that next to infants and toddlers, adolescents are the group most affected by family violence. Having lived with violence for a number of years, adolescents see their increasing independence as a means of escape from the family conflicts. Family conflict is a frequent cause of teenagers leaving home and, in some cases, leading a life on the streets, as has become apparent from the Burdekin Report (1989). The pent-up aggression and frustration of previous years often erupts in adolescence and may result in violently aggressive behaviour, particularly in boys who may begin to role model their father's behaviour (Strauss et al 1980).

The question that has concerned many researchers is whether there is 'a cycle of violence'. Social learning theory suggests that children repeatedly watching their parents in violent conflict will see this as an acceptable way of resolving problems. Furthermore, the argument goes, male children will model their own behaviour on that of their fathers and will use aggressive and violent behaviour as a source of controlling their future relationships. On the other hand, girls, it is suggested, will tend to adopt the passive submissive attitude of their mothers and tolerate a degree of violence which would be unacceptable outside the home.

Because most of the studies in this area are retrospective, it is difficult to support the hypothesis of the cycle of violence with any great degree of certainty. Some researchers have noted a high incidence of parental violence reported by chronically violent adolescents in institutions (Fagan and Wexler 1987). Others have found a correlation between severe marital conflict in later life and violence between parents (Kalmuss 1984). However, it is generally agreed that there is a significant relationship between watching parental violence as a child and aggressive or violent behaviour in later life.

Clearly this is not always the case. As Sinclair (1984) aptly puts it: 'Not all children are doomed to repeat their parents' patterns ... It is crucial that we do not participate in a self-fulfilling prophecy giving children the message that if they grow up in a violent home they will become violent themselves. Children have choices. Our job is to make these choices available to them.'

The resilience of children who live through violence in the home and emerge relatively unscathed has been the subject of some thought. Garmezy and Rutter (1983) have suggested that three broad factors lead to resilience against stressful events in childhood. These are: first, the inherent characteristics of the child, for example, coping abilities and the capacity to adjust; second, support within the family system; and, third, support outside the family. In terms of the violent family, the major support for the children within the family is the mother, but she is frequently unable to provide the necessary support because of her own depressed state of physical and psychological health (Pressman 1989).

THE STUDY

The study described here, undertaken by the author and a research team from Curtin University, was commissioned by the Office of the Family in Western Australia (Blanchard et al 1991). Its four principal aims were: (1) to document the direct experience of children who witness domestic violence in the home; (2) seek the opinions of service providers on the effects of domestic violence they observed in children; (3) to survey the facilities available in Western Australia to assist child victims of family conflict; and (4) make recommendations to fill the anticipated gaps in services.

Data on the observed effects of domestic violence on children were collected from 56 respondents to an open- ended questionnaire, qualitative data were obtained from interviews with 18 children between the ages of 6 and 15, and a review of currently available services in the Perth metropolitan area was conducted.

First-hand information from the children themselves was obtained where possible in recognition of the principle that children's views and opinions should not be ignored when planning services for them. This proved to be more difficult than had at first been anticipated. Agencies who had been enthusiastic when first contacted expressed reservations when it actually came to approaching children and their parents to arrange interviews. Some indicated their time was too limited for them to become involved, but others were reluctant because of the sensitive nature of the topic, despite stringent ethical safeguards that were put in place by the research team. As a last resort, the strategy of publicly advertising for participants was adopted, and this yielded at least half the total number of participants.

It seems that the aura of secrecy surrounding domestic violence still has considerable sway and that there is also a mistaken belief that children who have been exposed to violence should not talk about it. Not surprisingly, those children who were interviewed indicated it helped them to have the opportunity to talk. It was made clear that the research interviews were not therapy sessions, and that children or parents requesting counselling could be referred to an appropriate agency. However, the chance to speak freely to someone who was interested in their experiences and feelings was a new and welcome event for some of the children.

Interviews with the children were designed to be non- directive so that the children could remain in control of the interviews throughout and be able to say what they wanted without pressure. A simple interview guide was constructed to give some focus to the interviews. This consisted of four topics - the child's present situation, the experience of violence, getting out of the violent situation, and the return to the present with a discussion of how the child was coping and what had helped or hindered him/her. If the child was reticent about discussing any particular topic, this was not pursued further. All the interviews were taped and transcribed later. Although the resulting interviews with children were smaller in number than had been hoped for, they made up for this in quality. Many of the children's comments were revealing and illuminating.

The questionnaire for the service providers was distributed to staff in agencies who worked regularly with children from violent homes. Just over half the respondents either had a background of working in women's refuges or were currently in a refuge. As refuges remain the only domestic violence- specific service available for children in the Perth metropolitan area, it is probable that those who have had experience of working in refuges are likely to be more aware of the issues related to children witnessing domestic violence. However, some of the respondents came from other areas including the Department for Community Services, child and adolescent clinics, school-based services and residential child care.

The questionnaire was in three parts: the observable effects of domestic violence on child witnesses; the range and effectiveness of existing services; and the basic data regarding the respondents' years and area of experience. It was open-ended to allow respondents the opportunity of stating their opinions based on their own expertise in the field. The offer of an interview was extended to anyone who preferred this, but none took it up.

THE CHILDREN

The children described periodic incidents of violence in their homes in which their mothers were hit, slapped, pushed or threatened when their fathers were apparently in a rage. The incidents occurred from as much as twice a week to once a month or four or five times a year.

For the majority of children these 'normal' incidents were punctuated by particularly violent episodes which stood out in their minds. For example, one child described how her mother was so severely beaten she had to be taken to hospital by ambulance and revived, and in another situation the father drove recklessly threatening to kill all the members of the family. Each of the children witnessing these kinds of incidents said they feared for their mother's life.

In the majority of cases the children were bystanders. However, in some instances the father had directed his violence against the mother and the children. This seemed to occur if the father believed it was a way of hurting the mother. For example, one eight-year-old girl said her father had threatened to make her mother so sick she would be unable to care for the children.

The overriding feeling the children experienced during the violence was fear, both for their own safety and for that of their mother. One 14-year- old girl commented, 'living with that going on is pure hell', while a ten-year- old boy said it was like being in a war.

Some of the children blamed themselves for the violence between their parents and said that it would not have occurred had they not been present. Frequent reactions were either to try to stop the violence themselves or hide in other parts of the house. Three children said they used to hide when they were younger, but as they grew older they tried to intervene. One said: 'The first time it happened I ran and hid under my bed. I stayed there for hours and afterwards Mum was looking for me everywhere. I was too scared to come out.' Four children under nine years of age said they tried to sleep or turned the television up loud to stop the noise but they were still extremely frightened. Several children said they were too afraid of their father to do anything to stop the violence, such as phone the police. Six children said they felt the need to look after and reassure younger siblings while the violence was occurring, seven said they wanted to stay close to protect their mothers.

Those who did try to intervene felt helpless in terms of their inability to stop the violence. One six-year-old girl said: 'Once Dad threw Mum against the chair and he was choking her. I went to open the door to get help but Dad pulled me back and I couldn't get the door unlocked in time. Mum tried to help me with the door knob but Dad just got so mad. I just couldn't stop them.' Six children were hit by their father while trying to defend their mother or stop the violence. They were unintentionally physically harmed as they got in the way.

This study was specifically aimed at those children who are observers of violence rather than those who are subject to abuse themselves; children who were both abused and also observers were excluded, but, as the above examples illustrate, it is difficult to separate the two sets of children. It might be noted that about 50 per cent of children living in situations of domestic violence are also abused (Hughes 1988).

The feelings of helplessness and despair about changing the situation resulted in some children running away from home to neighbours feeling depressed and unhappy, and one attempted suicide. Besides the fear and depression children experienced, many commented on the effect of the the violence in their lives on their performance at school. An eight-year-old said: 'My school work has suffered because sometimes I am thinking too much about Mum and worrying about her.' Some children were aware of the likelihood of this happening: one child said she tried extra hard at school to make sure she did well.

The children were asked to talk about where they went for help both during the crisis and immediately afterwards. They mentioned a total of 12 sources of support. These included formal supports, such as counselling, refuges, camps, police and children's groups, and informal supports such as their mothers, their siblings, friends relatives, neighbours, teachers and the telephone.

Eleven of the 18 children interviewed, said their mothers were a good source of support, while three said their mothers were too distressed themselves to help them. Six said older siblings helped them to cope. Over half said that friends were good to talk to during the crisis, but some said they would not trust others to understand. Twelve of the children said they were able to run to sympathetic neighbours for help. In one case the neighbour was assaulted when she intervened. However, most neighbours were able to call the police and take care of the children in the meantime. Two children who lived in country areas had nowhere to go for help and support; one boy felt he could not approach anyone in the area and so he would wait in the local park until the violence was over and then return home. Nine children said their relatives were able to give them help by providing a temporary place to stay and by listening to them and helping them to understand the situation. Two said their relatives were useless because they did not acknowledge the problem, while six children did not have relatives in the area. The telephone was not seen by many to be useful either because their father would not allow them to use it or because they were too small.

Among the formal supports, teachers were mentioned by several children as a good source of assistance after a crisis. They found they were able to talk to their teachers who accepted and respected their problems. A few children said their teachers were no help as they 'didn't want to know' or were unhelpful in other ways. Five children said police were not as helpful as they thought they should be because they took too long to get there, and when they did arrive they 'wouldn't do anything'. Five of the children had been to counselling and their reactions were mixed, one finding it very helpful, two finding it moderately helpful and others not wanting to return. Three children found a co-counselling group very helpful, and five children said they found camps for young people, either school or community based, very helpful as they offered an opportunity for them to talk freely about their experiences and feelings and to hear from others in similar circumstances.

The children were asked what sort of supports they thought would be useful. Some said they would like to have a reliable, sympathetic and capable adult within walking distance of the house who could take over the responsibility of dealing with the violence and ensure their safety. Two children said they would like to have a refuge nearby where they could go with their mothers.

Three children said the most useful form of help would be for the violence to stop. One said: 'I want something to make us stop being scared, make Dad stop drinking. He's nice to us when he's not drinking but he scares us when he is.' Sixteen of the children said they appreciated being able to talk about the violence at home as many felt they were not able to discuss it freely in their day to day lives. One 16-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted said she found it easier to talk about this than to talk about the violence at home.

Most children said they preferred informal supports such as neighbours and relatives, their siblings and their mother. Two mentioned the best form of support would be to provide help for their mothers, as they turned to their mothers for support but were aware that during violent incidents their mothers were too stressed to help. Older children, in the 12 to 15 age range, thought more in terms of community-based supports, independent of the family. These were the children who had benefited from camps, and thought they were valuable for breaking the isolation of children living with violence.

Three girls interviewed wanted more programs for girls. They all said they were afraid of ending up like their mothers and saw self-esteem as a critical element in whether they followed their mothers into a pattern of destructive relationships. They felt that boys had access to more help because they tended to act out their problems in more obvious ways, such as through crime and vandalism. Girls tended to internalise their problems and often displayed few outward signs of distress. A 15-year-old said: 'It's like we're invisible. Everyone notices boys because they go stealing cars and things and we don't get noticed. People need to know we exist.'

THE SERVICE PROVIDERS

Respondents to the workers' questionnaire named aggression or passivity as the most frequent responses to violent home situations that they perceived in the course of their work with children from such situations. Three quarters of the respondents listed problems with learning and concentration, and stress symptoms such as bed-wetting, nightmares and regressive behaviour. One worker said: 'One child was so tired because he had to stay awake at night to listen out for any violence so he could protect his mother.'

They observed that a large number of children act in a protective way towards their younger siblings and their mothers, taking on adult responsibilities in the family and trying to be 'perfect' children. One worker commented: 'These kids are suffering. They may not always look like it or act like it, but they are. It's not just those with diagnosed 'behaviour problems' who need help but also those who try to cope by being perfect in order to gain control over the violence.'

Most respondents thought that children needed one-to- one attention, including domestic violence education and counselling to help them understand the situation and help them to relax and be children rather than 'burdened down pseudo adults'. Half considered that a safe environment and practical help were the most important issues. One mentioned that the perpetrator of the violence should be removed from the family home, not the children, as sometimes happens. Next to love and attention, acceptance and building self-esteem were considered to be important

Some service providers thought that schools were the appropriate agencies for providing support for the children. It was also considered that children's life chances would be improved if their progress at school could be maintained. Teachers were seen as the child's first source of adult support after a crisis. Half saw family counselling as desirable, and one made the salient point that multiple resources were needed to address the problem.

Almost all respondents felt that children's needs were only being minimally met, if at all. The identification of most agencies with adults' problems and also the secrecy surrounding domestic violence were seen as the reasons for the paucity of services. Secrecy discouraged child victims of domestic violence from coming forward, and the need to obtain parental permission to work with children was seen as an obstacle to workers' being able to help children to resolve their feelings about family conflict. Long waiting lists and the lack of specific services often led to workers in close contact with children from violent homes feeling frustrated and unable to refer them anywhere for further help. The point raised by children in country areas was reiterated by some workers who said they felt even more isolated and unsupported in their dealings with children from violent families as many smaller centres have very few facilities or services.

Service providers were of the view that more support was needed for families to stop violence occurring. This included follow-up services for women after they leave the violent partner, broad-based community education, and further legal sanctions to restrain the abuser, including mandatory reporting and arrest. Ongoing training in domestic violence for all human service workers was seen as important, and more professional counselling and crisis services which could provide an immediate response to children who needed counselling and support.

SERVICES FOR CHILDREN IN VIOLENT FAMILIES

The survey of resources available for child victims of domestic violence revealed that little exists in Western Australia specifically for children. Most services listed in directories of children's services or mentioned by questionnaire respondents are either general in nature or primarily for adults. Some focus on issues other than domestic violence (for example, addictions or child abuse). Women's refuges which employ children's support workers are the exception. However, services for children have tended to be the poor relation in terms of refuge funding priorities, and children's support positions are often the last to be established and the first to be cut back in times of funding restraint.

Schools were mentioned by all children interviewed and a high proportion of the questionnaire respondents as being a potentially important source of support following a family crisis. Butterworth and Fulmer (1991) acknowledge that teachers often feel that the social expectations placed on their shoulders are excessive, but the reality is that teachers are the most significant adults in a child's life after parents and close relatives. Teachers should be trained to be aware of the issues involved in domestic violence, particularly as there are likely to be three to five children in each classroom who are contending with violence at home.

In addition, schools are ideally placed to teach children about domestic violence. Domestic violence is part of the K-10 Prevention Education Supplement to the Health Education Syllabus in Western Australia. The focus is on understanding what constitutes domestic violence, that it is a power issue involving more that just physical abuse. The syllabus emphasises healthy relationships are dependent on clear and open communication, assertiveness and sensitivity towards others. It also underlines the need to develop supportive networks as a protective strategy. However, the syllabus is optional in state schools and it is unclear when or whether it will become compulsory.

The mainstream counselling services to which children are most often referred include the Department for Community Services (now Department for Community Development), the Child and Adolescent Clinics, the Child Development Centre and the Community Health Centres. These deal with a range of problems, some emphasising the child's behaviour rather than family dynamics. Waiting lists are a problem, except with the Department for Community Development, but the focus there is essentially on the child as the primary victim of abuse.

The Crisis Care Unit is a telephone and mobile crisis service usually able to respond immediately, but it does not offer ongoing support. The Family Court Counselling Service runs children's groups according to demand to help children deal with issues of violence in the home and their parents' separation, and Holyoake, the Australian Institute on Alcohol and Addictions, also runs groups for children but does so in terms of its specific area of concern, which, indeed, has a common interface with domestic violence.

Other community and church welfare services provide little in the way of direct supports for children, concentrating their activities almost entirely on adults.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The availability of services for child victims of domestic violence is limited and patchy at the least. This is not surprising as it is only recently that attention has turned to the effect of the violence on children. However, it also illustrates how adults think about children - that family crises wash over them and go unnoticed, that they do not know what is happening and therefore are largely unscathed.

The most enlightening aspect of this study was the amount of insight children of all ages had with regard to their family situation. They understood very clearly what was happening, and they assumed responsibility beyond what would normally be expected of their years. The study also showed the importance children placed on being able to talk about the violence in their families, instead of keeping it hidden. Girls in particular saw the possibility of becoming like their parents in the future and the need to prevent this happening. Thus the importance of direct services for the children themselves became apparent from the study.

It was clear also that such services need to be 'user- friendly'; they need to reflect the child's environment and knowledge of the world. Services which are informal and easily accessible are important. The children indicated they would like to have a reliable and sympathetic adult living nearby to whom they could go for help in a crisis.

This leads to two conclusions: first, the need for more community education in the issues of domestic violence so that neighbours can help with knowledge and understanding; and, second, the possibility of a community approach to domestic violence somewhat like a Safety House or Neighbourhood Watch scheme. Obviously the kinds of services available to adults in crisis, such as telephone hot- lines, are unsuitable for children, and a new approach which recognises the child's perspective is needed.

School-based services are also vitally important as, after their families, school is the most important element in children's lives. Recommendations resulting from this study included the need to make the K-10 Prevention Education Supplement to the Health Education Syllabus compulsory. They also proposed the need for more education about domestic violence and closer liaison for teachers and other professionals working in the school system, as well as more school-based social workers.

Another priority is for human service workers to be trained in domestic violence issues, and in particular in the needs of child witnesses. Although working with children from violent home backgrounds, many respondents had no specialist training, and some felt they were unable to provide as much help as they thought was needed because of their own limitations in this regard. A greater role for agencies to provide outreach services to children and their mothers affected by domestic violence was seen as essential. Such services should be able to respond immediately and provide practical and continuing support. In addition, it was suggested a pilot Domestic Violence Children's Intervention Program, under the auspices of an existing agency, should be run for a set period of time and evaluated.

Other recommendations dealt with the role of police, the need to look further at the lack of services in country areas, and strategies which could be adopted for wider community education (such as poster campaigns to focus attention on the consequences of domestic violence on children). Education and information campaigns should not only be directed towards adults, but also should take into consideration the need to reach out to children (for example, posters on school buses should be considered).

Finally, the recommendations endorsed the view that support services for women should be strengthened as it is the mother who is clearly the most important source of help for the child, and that there is a need to assist mothers to assist children.

CONCLUSION

This project was essentially aimed at directing attention to an area where children's participation and their very real needs have been largely overlooked. In doing so it took particular notice of the views of children themselves as well as of the people working most closely with children from violent home situations. As a result, the study confirmed much of the previous research in relation to the immediate effects of domestic violence on children. It emerged clearly that children are the silent observers and experience extreme fear, anxiety, a sense of responsibility to stop the violence, and depression and frustration.

The study also identified the lack of services for child victims of domestic violence which specifically relate to their needs and which can respond with immediacy and effectiveness. As a result, a number of recommendations were made which attempted to see service provision from the principle of the child's perspective, that is, services which can be located in the child's neighbourhood and can be easily accessible and non- threatening.

It has been gratifying for the researchers to have had an immediate response from the Western Australian Government. Among measures introduced following the publication of the report on the project has been the funding of an existing community-based agency to develop and run a pilot program for children who have witnessed domestic violence. This will function for a two-year period and will be fully evaluated. A scheme for funding domestic violence inter-agency groups to train their workers has also been established. As well, further training programs have been instituted for the police force.

The study was largely qualitative in nature, and as a result it can not be said to have confirmed any universally applicable hypotheses. It did, however, provide some first- hand Australian data on children's perceptions of violence and information on the availability of support services. The value of qualitative data has been vindicated by the media support this study received on publication and the prompt response from government. It is important that policy makers hear not only the hard factual information but also the authentic experience of people, in this case children, for whom policy is to be developed.

Although this study was about family violence, several factors surfaced that could refer also to family disruption in general. While domestic violence in its physical aspects is probably the most frightening and traumatising experience for the child observer, other forms of family conflict can have similarly serious consequences for children's future development. Children are certainly the unintentional victims of their parents' marital problems, and as Heershorn and Rosenbaum (1985) say: 'If parents can be made aware of the detrimental effects of their marital difficulties on their children, it will be come progressively more difficult to disavow either responsibility or intentionality.'

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