This qualitative study aimed to highlight the contextual nuances of childhood protective strategies from the perspectives of adult daughters of abused women raised in rural areas (N = 35). Within the rural context, young girls seeing their mothers physically and emotionally harmed by male partners reinforces traditional cultural messages about gender relations and gender inequality. As intimate partner violence (IPV) is often normalized and considered a private family matter in rural areas, female victims and their daughters understand that they are often on their own when it comes to protection from male violence. This study’s findings underscore the tenuous balance for female children exposed to domestic violence between seeking refuge from violence exposure versus challenging rural cultural norms of male dominance and female subordination. Research question: How do adult daughters of abused women raised in rural areas perceive the context and nature of their childhood coping strategies?
This convenience sample was drawn from a large mixed-methods study of adult daughters (N=68) exposed to IPV during their childhood. Purposive sampling criteria for the more extensive study included females who were (1) 21 or older, (2) did not reside in their parents’ homes, and (3) were exposed (during childhood) to their mothers’ being victimized by intimate male partners. Inclusion criteria for the current study included participants raised on a farm or rural town (n = 35) defined as communities not near a major metropolitan center and with a population of fewer than 10,000 people.
Participants ranged in age from 19 to 64 years old (M = 37, SD = 12.5). 31 (89%) were European-American, 31 (89%) were employed (full- or part-time, and 18 (52%) had children. 17 (48%) were married/living with SO, and 16 (46%) reported IPV in adulthood. Twelve participants (34%) were exposed to their mother’s IPV for 11 or more years during childhood. Abusers included fathers (n = 24, 69%) and stepfathers (n = 7, 20%) primarily, while 22 (63%) reported the abuser also abused them.
Qualitative data analysis was conducted using a constant comparative method based on transcriptions of semi-structured, in-depth interviews. A categorical-content approach was used to attend to separate parts of the story within and between participants’ narratives. Thematic analysis produced three overarching themes related to participants’ childhood efforts to protect themselves and their mothers: 1) seeking safety and connection (i.e., friends, pets, nature, school, and extracurricular activities), 2) hiding and invisibility (i.e., physically hiding, mental escapes and creating plans to break the cycle of violence as adults), and 3) intervening and protecting others (i.e., diverting, mediating, and opposing violence).
The current study’s findings suggest the importance of exploring how girls make sense of their exposure experiences, frame their circumstances, and plan for their futures to disrupt and rebuff the influence of patriarchal attitudes normalizing violence against women. Implications for helping professionals and researchers include investigating how the rural context influences girls’ coping strategies while addressing safety planning for themselves and their mothers.