Opinion: Children are collateral victims of abuse, and we must intervene early to break the cycle
Published Monday, May 3, 2021 4:58PM EDT
MONTREAL -- With the tabling of the Laurent Commission’s final report, and given the current and extremely worrying increase in the number of cases of intimate partner violence being reported in Quebec, it is more urgent than ever to reiterate the importance of intervening early, basing these actions on the best research available, while funding further research to improve knowledge and practices.
The 10 recent femicides in Quebec have orphaned more than 20 children. Yet what about all the other children who are exposed to such violence and who are its collateral victims, even when it does not end in the death of a parent?
It is particularly important to situate the problem of intimate partner violence within the context of children’s education and the intergenerational reproduction of problems of violence.
Recently, the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development published a special dossier reminding us that children's exposure to intimate partner violence is a form of maltreatment associated with an increased risk of developing mental health problems.
In Canada, over one third of child maltreatment investigations are specific to exposure to intimate partner violence.
This observation raises the question, “What can we do to prevent all forms of violence so that exposed children do not reproduce these behaviours later?”
For nearly 40 years, Quebec researchers have been studying the development of violent behaviours from early childhood to adulthood and measuring the effectiveness of preventive interventions.
Studies with several thousands of families have enabled these researchers to: a) trace the developmental trajectories of aggressive behaviours in boys and girls; b) identify the factors that explain these trajectories; c) measure the long-term consequences of these trajectories; d) test preventive interventions.
Many of the findings from these studies can help us understand the origins of intimate partner violence and should guide prevention efforts.
In this respect, research shows that:
- Children who have the most difficulty learning to use alternatives to aggression are those whose parents have had and continue to have problems of self-control. Thus, there is intergenerational transmission of violent behaviours.
- The frequency of physical aggression between human beings is at its highest between the ages of two and three years old.
- Boys use physical aggression more often than girls, from early childhood to adulthood.
- Girls more often use indirect forms of aggression (e.g., telling other children bad things about a child they don’t like).
- Learning to use alternatives to aggression happens gradually during early and middle childhood.
The origins of violence listed above as well as the intergenerational transmission of violent behaviours underscore the importance of prevention starting at a young age.
Research suggests the following avenues for preventive interventions:
- Young adults who have problems of self-control tend to choose partners who have similar problems.
- It is important to put in place strategies to detect and help couples who have problems of self-control, early in the first pregnancy.
- Help provided to these couples should include access to a high-quality early education centre for their child(ren) and parental support to develop parenting skills through home visits and professionally led parenting groups.
Breaking the cycle of violence inevitably requires that child protection and violence prevention be made absolute priorities.
Isabelle Vinet, Executive Director of the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
Richard E. Tremblay, PhD, OC, OQ, FSRC
Emeritus professor of Pediatrics and Psychology and scientific director of the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
Université de Montréal
Michel Boivin, PhD, MSRC/FSRC
Professor at the School of Psychology of Université Laval and scientific director of the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
Canada Research Chair in Child Development
Sylvana Côté, PhD
Professor, School of Public Health, Université de Montréal, Researcher, CHU Ste-Justine
Director of the Observatoire pour l’éducation et la santé des enfants
Authors Richard E Tremblay, Frank Vitaro, Sylvana M Côté, January 4, 2018
Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 69, Pages 383-407