Growing up in a violent home: New study reveals secrets between sons and fathers

October 16, 2006

A new study explores how boys view their fathers as the boys move from childhood into adulthood. The study, "Witnessing Marital Violence as Children: Men's Perceptions of Their Fathers," is by Gary Dick, assistant professor of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati, and is published in the current issue of the Journal of Social Service Research, Volume 32, issue two.

Dick says previous research suggests boys who witness a father's violence against their mother are at risk of becoming abusers themselves, in addition to developing an ambivalent relationship with their fathers and even ending contact with them in adulthood. "Much is known about the internal and external effects that witnessing violence has on children, but we know little about the type of relationship men had with their fathers after witnessing parental aggression," Dick writes in the study. "Understanding abusive men's relationships with their children and how they carry out their paternal roles is an important issue in preventing violence against women."

In a study of 104 men ranging in age from 19 to 61, Dick compared a group of men who had witnessed marital violence as children to a group of men who did not witness marital violence as children, to see if there were differences in how the men perceived their relationships with their fathers. Forty-three percent of the men studied had parents who divorced during their childhood - the mean age of the children at the time of divorce was about eight-and-a-half years old.

In examining men's perceptions of father involvement, Dick found that men who had witnessed marital violence felt their fathers were less accessible and less responsible with daily child care tasks (school activities, taking a child to the doctor) than men who did not grow up in a violent home. The men who witnessed marital violence were also more likely to report being emotionally and physically abused by their fathers. The survey found that men who had not witnessed their father abusing their mother were more likely to report that their father verbally expressed love, affection and praise toward them and in return, these men reported warm feelings toward their fathers.

The study also asked the men to examine the moral role of their fathers, such as teaching them right from wrong or attending church with them. The men who witnessed family violence rated their fathers lower. Growing into adulthood, Dick says there were significant differences between the two groups in becoming violent toward their own intimate partners. The men who witnessed marital violence as children were more likely to use abusive tactics on their own partners.

Dick says findings from the study have implications for social workers and counselors who treat men who batter women, as social workers not only work to prevent the abuse but help men take an active, positive role in parenting their children. The study recommends future research on how men who grew up in violent households view themselves as fathers.

University of Cincinnati

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