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A Closer Look: Q&A with Megan Holmes

megan-r-holmesMegan Holmes is an assistant professor of applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She recently conducted a groundbreaking study on the effects of early exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) on children.

The title of your study is “The Sleeper Effect of Intimate Partner Violence.” What is “the sleeper effect of IPV” and why is it important?

The sleeper effect is a delayed effect. So for this study, I looked at what happens to children’s aggressive behavior over 5 years when children are exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) at an early age, but then are never exposed again. What I found was that there is a delayed effect of IPV exposure on aggressive behavior. Initially, children who were exposed to IPV between birth and three years did not differ from children never exposed. However, over time, children who were exposed at an early age gradually became more aggressive, while children who were never exposed to IPV over the course of the study gradually decreased their aggressive behavior.

What do you hypothesize are potential reasons for the delayed effect as well as the relationship between higher levels of exposure and higher levels of aggression? How do you foresee pursuing further research in this area?

I think the delayed effect of aggression not showing up until the child is of school age has to do with the child starting to socialize with peers more frequently. Other research has shown that that children exposed to IPV have difficulty regulating emotions, and that this is related to difficulty in forming peer relationships. Part of it may also be that the child doesn’t know how to interact with peers in a healthy way because of the violent relationship that has been modeled by his or her caretakers.

My current research is beginning to look at sibling relationships in families experiencing IPV. In my clinical work, I have seen that the relationships between siblings can be protective against developing behavioral problems and emotional difficulties. In my research, I am beginning to look at the specific elements of the sibling relationships that are protective so that, in the future, a sibling-based intervention could be developed to enhance these protective qualities.

What else did you learn about the effect of early exposure to IPV and its impact on child development?

What I am finding in my other research that looks at a larger sample of children, and accounts for IPV exposure occurring during four time points, is that IPV exposure during these early years has the largest effect on aggressive behavior. I am also seeing a delayed effect as well. This is important because even if the child is no longer being exposed to the violence between caretakers, the child may still experience negative effects in the future from the past exposure.

One thing to note about this study is that we used a sample of children who had been reported to Child Protective Services for abuse or neglect, so the comparison group of children who have never been exposed to IPV were alleged victims of other forms of family violence, such as abuse or neglect. Larger differences between children who were and were not exposed to IPV may exist in the general population because of the similar outcomes between children who had been maltreated and children who have been exposed to IPV.

What are the implications of your findings for practitioners working with children and families impacted by IPV?

Understanding the period of time when IPV exposure has the greatest effect on children’s development may provide insight into the timing and opportunities for interventions before maladaptive coping strategies and disturbed social behaviors become more pervasive.  Based on the this study’s results, the following are recommended for practitioners and others working with children and families effected by IPV:
(1) Assessments conducted by social work clinicians need to include the age or developmental period when IPV exposure began as well, as the nature of exposure, including duration and level of severity; and
(2) Interventions should be targeted towards those children who are exposed when they are 3 years old or younger, and those children who have experienced longer duration or severe forms of IPV exposure.

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