Anxiety, Depression, and Posttraumatic Stress Among Youth Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: The Impact of Witnessing Animal Cruelty
Children exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) are at increased risk for the development of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems and poor socioemotional functioning (e.g., Gewirtz & Edleson, 2007). Studies also indicate that children who are exposed to both IPV and animal cruelty may be at elevated risk for mental health and behavior problems (e.g., Simmons & Lehmann, 2007). To date, most studies in this area have focused on the influence of children’s exposure to animal cruelty in relation to externalizing disorders and the development of aggressive behaviors. The current study adds to the literature by examining the relationship between exposure to IPV and concomitant animal cruelty and maternal reports of internalizing behaviors and trauma symptoms in a sample of elementary school-aged children.
Participants included 90 mothers and their children (mean age: 9.45; 49% male, 50% female; 65% ethnic/racial minority) who were receiving services from a domestic violence agency and who reported owning a pet in the past year. Hierarchical multiple linear regression analyses were conducted to examine associations between independent variables (block 1: child age; child gender; child ethnicity; maternal level of education; yearly household income; block 2: maternal severity of IPV; block 3: children’s reports of witnessed violence; block 4: children’s exposure to animal cruelty in the home) and total scores on the Child Behavior Checklist subscales of posttraumatic stress symptoms, anxiety problems, and anxious/depressive behaviors (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001).
Approximately 20% of the variance in children’s posttraumatic stress symptoms was explained by all predictor variables (p= .04). Among predictors, yearly household income (β= -.23, p= .05) and witnessing animal cruelty (β= .33, p< .001) explained a significant proportion of the variance; lower income and exposure to animal cruelty were associated with higher levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms. Similarly, 20% of the variance in anxiety problems was explained by the full model (p= .04). Among predictors, only exposure to animal cruelty explained a significant proportion of the variance, with hearing or seeing animals harmed in the home being associated with increased anxious/depressive behaviors (β= .32, p< .001). Twenty-one percent of the variance in anxious/depressive behaviors was predicted by the full model (p= .03). Again, only exposure to animal cruelty explained a significant proportion of the variance (β= .25, p= .03).
Discussion & Implications
Study results lend support to prior research linking children’s exposure to IPV and concomitant animal cruelty to child mental health and behavioral issues. Our findings suggest that children’s exposure to IPV and animal cruelty may be more predictive of children’s trauma and internalizing symptoms than maternal violence experiences and children’s proximity of exposure to violence between partners. We hypothesize that exposure to animal cruelty may be especially disturbing for children in IPV situations as pets may be an important and significant emotional attachment in the midst of family violence (Melson, 2003). The implications associated with understanding how human-animal relationships in childhood can inform therapeutic interventions to promote mental health and well-being of youth exposed to IPV are noted.