David YAWNEY : RESILIENCY A Strategy for Survival of Childhood Trauma

Reprinted and condensed from Russell, M., Hightower, J., & Gutman, G. (Eds.) (1996). »Resiliency : A Strategy for Survival of Childhood Trauma ». In Stopping the Violence : Changing Families, Changing Futures. Vancouver, BC : BC Institute Against Family Violence.

My interest in child abuse, particularly in the family violence area, inevitably drew me to the issue of children who witness family violence. Working with a colleague who specialized in wife abuse issues, we embarked on developing an intervention tool, Project Child Recovery : Group Intervention for Child Witnesses of Family Violence (Yawney & Hill, 1993). As a newer area, there seemed more opportunity to explore unfinished dimensions regarding this subject. Essentially, there were few ready-made programs and this allowed for a fresh look at the field, with the opportunity to look at other intervention possibilities. In addition, some thinking was changing in response to research and afforded a reevaluation of ideas. For example, whereas in prior times there was a stronger adherence to the intergenerational hypothesis (the continuation of abuse through the generations), there was a tendency to over-subscribe to the occurrence of effects. When more and more stories were coming forward about individuals who overcame turbulent pasts, the door opened to what Gina O’Connell Higgins (1994, 1) refers to as the « uncelebrated resilient strengths ». Higgins makes note of our tendencies to focus on the dire and tragic rather than research psychological success for the « origins of mental health ». Similarly, a number of authors are raising a challenge for us to consider a possibility such as resilience and as Higgins (1994, 2) challenges, « it is time for us to understand why so many emerge from abuse without becoming abusive ». Or, as has become my interest, is it possible to understand the process of resilience and take advantage of it in our work in supporting clients to encourage both their healing from the past and their resilience today.

Steven and Sybil Wolin (1994) have been significant in challenging our thinking about adversity and how it is possible to rise above it. As will be discussed later, they reject « Damage Model » thinking and are proponents of « the resilient self ». As Higgins (1994, 1) defines it, « resilience implies that potential subjects are able to negotiate significant challenges to development yet consistently « snap back » in order to complete important developmental tasks that confront them as they grow ». For children, the possibilities become evident as « research shows that children of disturbed or incompetent parents learn to watch out for themselves and grow strong in the process » (Wolin & Wolin, 1994, 5).

The challenge here is to not exclusively look at the hurts which are inevitable, but also to explore the wellspring of individual strengths. Higgins represents that issue as follows :

Psychologists-in fact, many people-assume that children require unconditional love, attention, respect, security, and safety in order to become mentally healthy. By contrast, we historically see « maladaptive » or « defensive » behavior as a nearly inevitable outgrowth of compromised family life, especially when interpersonal stressors are extreme. That is, we assume that assaults such as parental alcoholism, gross neglect, systematic shaming and sexual intrusion will derail development. The following discussion of effects of abuse creates a sobering picture of the potential devastation. Yet even trauma researchers, understandably committed to discouraging the minimization and denial of abuse, note that people react differently to the same stressors and that some even respond relatively well. When people emerge from difficult circumstances and still demonstrate particular psychological strengths, they challenge the prevailing wisdom among developmental and clinical psychologists regarding the ways that personality strength evolve — or devolve (Higgins, 1994, 3).

To demonstrate the concept’s potential, this paper will first review the issue of children who witness family violence. However, rather than focus on effects which would normally provide a frame of reference for the intervention, the collateral concept of resilience will be reviewed.

The Forgotten Victims

Children came to significant attention in the early ’60s when the identification of the « battered child syndrome » and the child abuse movement were validated by the development of protective legislation. The resulting Child Welfare Acts enabled intervention on behalf of children for physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. As women’s shelters began to identify the problems of children who witness violence, so too, professionals in social service fields began to take note of the alarming frequency of violence in families. However, it is only recently that research and intervention have taken place for children who witness family violence (Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990, 15). It is only since the mid-1980s that family violence researchers have pursued and identified the current and future adjustment problems of children who live in violent homes.

In Canada, only two provincial child protection laws have made allowance for children who witness family violence. In the United States, there are no federal or state laws specific to child witnesses (Peled, 1993, 47). Despite this weakness in legislation, family violence professionals began to recognize that children didn’t need to be hit, yelled at or sexually abused to evidence some of the same effects. The « forgotten victims »-children of domestic violence-had finally received due attention.

Identifying the Problem of Child Witnesses

Attention to these turbulent families and the plight of the children raised the need for intervention. Although these troubled families could seek assistance voluntarily, the weight of legislation would elevate the recognition of this concern. The Child Welfare Act (Alberta 1985) provides such recognition by additionally defining « emotional injury (as) the result of exposure to domestic violence or severe domestic disharmony ». However, universal acceptance of this plight is still outstanding. Advocacy to recognize the risk is evident in Klosinski’s (1993, 562) review of separation and divorce, and his identification of « psychological maltreatment…when parents abuse each other physically in front of their children ». Therefore, child witness refers to children who have repeatedly witnessed severe acts of emotional and physical abuse directed at their parent by her/his intimate partner.

Exposure, or being witness, to domestic violence has generated the common phrase « child witness » or « children who witness family violence » (Note : the future term of « child observers » may be adopted to avoid apparent confusion with « child witnesses » in the courtroom and legal field). « Exposed witnesses » are not always a result of passive observation, as there are cases where a parent may « deliberately arrange for the child(ren) to witness the violence » (Dobash & Dobash, 1979, 151). Besides « exposed witnesses », concern also exists for « abused witnesses » by one or both parents, as the overlap of spouse abuse and child abuse occurring in the same home is possible. Straus et al (1980) approximated 30-40% and Pagelow (1990) estimated 40 to 60 percent of this occurring in violent families. Pagelow (1990, 348) refers to the term « double whammy » to highlight this problem of « victimized observer-victims ». As well, children can be drawn into the dispute as Jenkins et al (1989) survey indicated over 70% of the children intervened in the parental quarrels.

Compounding the problem is that society views violence as acceptable, « normal », or even honorable. It is not surprising, under these circumstances, that family violence researchers are finding that an « appalling array of emerging statistics testify to the use of violence in society » (Eaves preface to Roesch et al, 199, vii). Even more appalling is the frequency with which such violence occurs in many North American families (Jaffe et al, 1990, 15 ; Eaves preface to Roesch et al, 1990, vii). The end result is that by the end of childhood, only a minority seem to escape traumatic exposure.

Effects of Witnessing Family Violence on Children

Although they are often the « forgotten » or « unintended » victims, children suffer from witnessing the abuse of their parent (see several recent reviews of the literature ; Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989 ; Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990 ; Rosenberg & Rossman, 1990 ; Cooper, 1992 ; Yawney & Hill, 1993). Witnesses face « a form of emotional or psychological abuse » that « not only creates the fear and anxiety of an overwhelming life event, but also may damage children’s social, emotional, and behavioral development » (Jaffe, Suderman & Reitzel, 1992, 84).

Although direct abuse or obvious effects came to attention first, Martin & Rodeheffer’s (1976) review of physical child abuse is a good early example of acknowledging not only the direct abuse but also taking into account « the home environment » as taking its toll on children as well. Their thinking acknowledged that the effects of the abusive environment where love/nurturance are not readily available, and being subject to developmental delays, distortions and arrests.

Another view of the « home environment » is pictured in Johnson’s (1989, 19) review of the literature focusing on family dysfunction including inadequate families, anti-social families, discordant/disturbed families, and disrupted families « that lead to a high incidence of problems in child development and later psychopathology. » These four categories, which include my focus area of discordant/disturbed families, « have been found to be associated with higher incidences of psychological disorders leading to various maladaptive behaviors and to physical illness. »

Although no one model presently accounts for all the potential and actual effects on children of witnessing family violence, two theoretical perspectives have been frequently suggested : the social learning model (« violence begets violence ») and the family disruption hypothesis.

The social learning model purports that children are more likely to imitate violence in an environment where abuse is seen as a normative or acceptable behavior, thus learning that violence is a conflict-resolution strategy (Bandura, 1973). Despite being a useful model, the social learning hypothesis does not account for all the effects evident in children including internalizing problems (or emotional disturbance), externalizing problems (or behavior problems) nor effects in social competence. A second model, the family disruption hypothesis (Widom, 1989) accounts for the spin-off effects from family violence including « decreased parental effectiveness, changes in family residence, sibling distress, and anticipatory fear of new episodes of violence » (Jaffe, Suderman, & Reitzel, 1992a, 88).

In fact, a review of the consequences of witnessing family violence is not an easy endeavor and should avoid a « deterministic » view that would automatically subscribe effects as givens. Rosenberg & Rossman (1990, 206) provide the best advice regarding this by acknowledging that « because child witnesses tend to be a heterogeneous population, it might be more fruitful to identify variables that mediate children’s psychological outcome, rather than to assume that all children will be equally affected by witnessing violence ». However, with respect to Rosenberg & Rossman’s advice, the following sections pay attention to the helpful concept of « variables that mediate » such as resilience and protective factors.

Children in Danger

We can learn further of the effects of violence by analyzing children influenced by violence outside the family battleground. In our global village, we feel right next door to orphaned children, children in the midst of war and inner city violence. With community violence increasingly becoming a fact of life, the risk factors that can affect children (i.e., poverty, parental substance abuse, an absent parent, and parental incapacity), and the risk of violence inside the family, should alert us to what Gabarino terms « children in danger » (Garbarino, 1992 ; Garbarino, Dabrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992). The cost to children is evident in the psychological effects of trauma due to violence. Certainly, this emergent field recognizes the phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a response to childhood trauma. Garbarino’s (1992) concern draws attention to the child in a situation where violence is not a distinct or one-time event, but rather it is the « fabric of their lives ». This should focus our concern on the distinction between « acute danger » and « chronic danger ».


When considering children in danger, an additional ray of hope is under discussion. Garbarino (1992) notes the common-sense assumption that they will be « destined for developmental difficulties (but) on the other [hand] we have the fact that children survive such danger and may even overcome its challenges in ways that enhance development » (see also Edleson & Tolman, 1992, 35).

Wolin and Wolin (1993, vii) similarly address the concept of survivors rising above adversity when they assert that « [w]hile early hardship can cause enduring pain, often it is also a breeding ground for uncommon strength and courage. » As others have challenged the intergenerational hypothesis/assumption (see Kaufman & Zigler, 1989 for an extensive review of this issue), Wolin and Wolin note that the « transmission of family troubles from parent to child is by no means the rule » and offer the following analysis :

Research shows that children of disturbed or incompetent parents learn to watch out for themselves and grow strong in the process. Young survivors figure out how to locate allies outside the family, find pleasure in fantasy games, or build self-esteem by winning recognition in school. Over time, the capacity to rise above adversity by developing skills such as these expands and ripens into lasting strengths or aspects of the survivor’s self that I call resiliencies (Wolin & Wolin, 1993, 5-6).

This expanded perspective is important as it does not deny the reality of some children, but offers an optimistic analysis of other possibilities and hope for recovery. It challenges us to not exclusively see children as « caught in the Victim’s Trap, bound tightly to the very past » they wish to escape from as is the case with « Damage Model » thinking.

Rather than succumbing to a negative influence, resiliency develops out of a challenge to maintain self-esteem or what Middleton-Moz (1992, xix) refers to as « the healthy adaptation of children from dysfunctional families » as they show « personal power, not powerlessness » (11). Sundelin Wahlsten (1994) has researched the area of resilience and offers the following profile of « resilient children » :

Resilient children have been shown to be more intelligent, more easy-going in their temperament, more independent and easier to handle. They often had the possibility of attaching to people outside the family and seem to be able to nourish even from limited contacts with positive people (Sundelin Wahlsten, 1994, 716).

The effect of « positive people » may act as either a moderator or as a base for transcending. In studying the children of torture victims, Montgomery et al (1992, 804) concluded that « family context was of crucial importance for the child’s development of coping strategy, as lack of support from the parents reduced the child’s possibilities to revise and develop his or her coping ability. » Johnson’s (1989, 22) review of trauma notes that, « it appears that the degree of subsequent maladaptive response is moderated to some extent by various factors such as family or social support », as does Wolfe et al (1992) noting « the overriding importance of adult support systems ». The dilemma for the child witness is that their abused parent is often unavailable for healing support.

Despite the potential for resilience, there are always costs associated with a stressful environment, with effects individualized to specific children as in the following :

…[E]ven when the children show the ability to foster in stressful environments, this situation always has some costs. These costs may be in terms of retardation in specific areas of psychomotor development such as language, concept formation, body control, self concept, etc. Also children in risk environments often show aggression, frustration and disturbed social behavior. Surviving under problematic conditions appears to have a price (Sundelin Wahlste, 1994, 716).

This theorization offers insight and possibility for a child confronted with a home conflict that forces a « strategy for survival ». Sundelin Wahlsten points out that although the strategy may be experiences by the child as « functional », an external evaluation may assess the action/reaction as either mainly constructive or destructive.

The idea of a « strategy for survival » provides rationale for a child developing a combination of strengths and weaknesses. Rossman & Rosenberg (1992, 700) investigated the relationship between family stress and child distress, as well as marital conflict and child functioning, and they found a « strong connection between control beliefs, coping responses, and psychological outcome ». As the following example portrays, a child may evidence problem symptoms but be socially competent :

It was somewhat puzzling that children who appeared more troubled with regard to self feelings and problem symptoms, were also judged more competent in the social domain, but had not received any special social skills training. This pattern of outcome may be particularly characteristic of children trying to cope with marital conflict. Several explanations can be offered : perhaps these children are trying to stay safe in violent environments by carrying out expected social activities and behaviors ; perhaps they need to carry out these behaviors to obtain resources from others which the parents do not provide ; or, perhaps their greater social activity allows them to be away from the marital conflict at home (Roosman & Rosenberg, 1992, 711).

The vulnerability and at-risk status should not be forgotten when discussing the resiliency of children. However, one’s intervention will not only want to address identified needs but also build on the seven aspects of the self that typify survivors who demonstrate resiliency as outlined by Wolin & Wolin (1993, 5-6) :

Insight Creativity Humour Relationships Morality Initiative

The resiliency of children is possible and Topley (1991, p.5) emphasizes « not to under-estimate the ability of children to change. » Middleton-Moz (1989, 114), while recognizing that children of trauma are all changed by their experiences (with some experiences being so overwhelming as to not benefit from individual strength or protective factors) supports that « finding ways to enhance resilience makes good practical sense » as children do « bounce back rather than breaking ».

(Towards Protective and Compensatory Factors

In our important work of assisting children, we not only want to respond to the problem, which is often seen as reducing risk factors, we also strive to strengthen protective factors contributing to the children’s health and well-being. The lesson to be learned from resilient children is that they have been able to take advantage of protective factors in their environments to develop a resilience or strength. It is these protective factors, in what Kaufman & Zigler (1989, 138) term as « compensatory factors », that make them less vulnerable when confronted with difficult situations. The focus here is that as we work with children who witness family violence, we assist them in becoming resistant or less vulnerable to further confrontation with family turmoil. Therefore, an important goal is assisting in the further development of competencies in their characters.

Benard’s (1987, 75) protective factor research noted Garmezy’s (1974) description of desirable characteristics or competencies found in the resilient child including :

Effectiveness in task, play and relationships A positive outlook with health expectations Self-esteem, competent feeling, and internal locus of control Self-discipline Problem-solving and critical thinking skills Humour In researching stress-protective factors in childhood, Reid and Dubow (1990) found that « children exposed to increasingly more early risk factors were more likely to have later adjustment problems ; conversely, children with higher levels of early protective factors were less likely to have later adjustment problems ». Middleton-Moz (1989, 13), who acknowledges that all children experience traumatic events, focuses our concern on the dangers of unresolved trauma and even though we cannot fully protect children from traumatic events, we can « protect (children) from the damaging effects of unresolved trauma on the child’s developing self-esteem ». Thereby, in our interventions, we strive to orient children towards successful or constructive coping strategies that act as protective factors as they face future danger or stress, and in doing this, lay the grounds for considerable optimism.

Intervention Programming

In considering the intervention needs of children who witness family violence, the group curriculum Project Child Recovery (Yawney & Hill, 1993) attempted to honor the important trauma literature to date but also take advantage of a shift in perception to include resilience thinking. Addressing the potential effects still remains an important goal ; but there is an attempt to move beyond an exclusive assumption of negativity. As evident in Higgins’ work (1994, 68), one adopts an « assumption lense » that emphasizes mental health and mental growth throughout the life span, and also orients toward understanding the resilient client on the basis of his or her highest level of functioning.

Another important aspect to the development of intervention curriculum was a differential approach to group programming. In work with a group, or on an individual basis, there can be a tendency to employ standard interventions which address objectives relating to a general problem area. However, attention needs to be given to tailoring a program to group participants, their developmental nuances and their identified needs. Cognitive and maturational levels are realities that cannot be ignored when proposing an effective intervention with children. The work of Ragg (1991) is a good example of using the principle of differential group programming to match techniques, content focus and goal focus. Ragg’s (1991) work encourages programming built with developmental consideration being a primary factor, thereby allowing developing strengths in the client to lead the program. It proposes that a « child’s goals » and « leader’s behavior » should be seen as changing variables as both developmental stages and objectives are met. In a companion article, Ragg has extended his thinking regarding group work focusing on the preschool child witness in the areas of clinical, safety and prevention programming (Ragg & Webb, 1992, 10-16).

The Road to Non-Violence : Resiliency, « Living Intentionally » and Self-Esteem

The research and clinical data on children who witness violence is in a state of evolution. As the concepts utilized in Project Child Recovery were developed, several ideas provided potential leadership for further program development. At the time of writing, the concepts of resiliency, « living intentionally » and self-esteem appeared to provide valuable insight and potential. The trauma and abuse literature has made us aware of the various effects of family violence and the potential for « human time-bombs » being carriers of future violence. However, the resilience literature portrays a hopeful picture of « bouncing back » from negative experience.

Beth Balshaw studied men who grew up with turbulent situations in their childhood, but chose non-violence in their adult life. Such a retrospective study of choosing non-violence highlights the proactive stance of « living intentionally ».

Living intentionally is the core variable that seems to account for non-violent behavior. The three stages of living intentionally are becoming aware of self and environment ; resolving to be nonviolent, to live positively, and to contribute to the health of the whole ; and acting on the resolutions by separating from the pasts, making new connections, implementing decisions, and contributing to the world. Intrapersonal variables (i.e., communication skills, coping skills, creativity, and personal characteristics) ; interpersonal variables (i.e., outside intervention, relationship factors, and spirituality) ; and environmental variables appear to influence how effectively individuals are able to negotiate the process themes (Balshaw, 1993, 193).

Self-esteem and social competence are another important area which is emphasized in Project Child Recovery. Neighbors, Forehand & McVicar (1993) in studying young adolescents experiencing high interparental conflict have proposed a « stress buffering model » whereby resilient adolescents, versus non-resilient adolescents, have better relationships with their mothers (the study’s custodial parent) as well as higher levels of self-esteem.

Although the resiliency factor has an apparent positive impact, Neighbors et al (1993, 470) noted the precaution that « adolescents who are behaviorally competent may nevertheless have significant internalizing problems » and therefore this aspect should not be overlooked. The inside picture draws attention to that important personal quality of self-esteem defined as « appreciating my own worth and importance, and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others » (California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, 1990, 18). A fuller appreciation of one’s own worth allows one to grow in confidence, in their sense of adequacy, and in their capability to live responsibly and effectively (19).

Although our efforts have focussed on the actual child witness of family violence, this thinking concurs with recent research pointing to the support system available to the children. Wyman et al (1992) studied children exposed to major life stress and were able to classify 74% of 10 to 12 year old children as « stress resilient » or « stress affected » based on four variables, finding that « caregiver-child relationships play a key role in moderating children’s developmental outcomes under conditions of high stress ». Seifer et al (1992, 901) « support the idea that the individual and family factors can ameliorate the impact of multiple risk factors in children between 4 and 13 years of age » – as a relation was found between protective factors and change in cognitive and social-emotional competence.


The opportunity that presently exists is one of utilizing this paper’s focal concept of resilience as a new building partner with trauma thinking of the 80s. This provides a hopeful air to our work, but more importantly, for the client there is a sense that there are possibilities to triumph over their own situation.

The important role of support from another, and the inherent relationship, provides an invaluable key to assisting the process of resilience. Alice Miller, in her important writings about mistreated children, speaks to the pivotal role of support :

It is essential that at least once in their life they come in contact with a person who knows without any doubt that the environment, not the helpless, battered child is at fault…here lies the great opportunity for [many] to support the child and to believe her or him (Miller, 1984, 283-284).

The voices of those affected may be the strongest testament to the possibility of resilience as portrayed in the recent works of Wolin & Wolin (1993) and Higgins (1994). John Seita (1994, 18) in his article « Resilience from the other side of the desk » further confirms this point, « [l]ooking back I remain convinced that relationships were and are the cornerstone of my personal resiliency and undergird all other factors ». Those who have walked the path of resilience such as Sylvia Rockwell make reference to « growing up resilient », progressing from « childhood resiliency » and speak « as a former resilient child [who] brought strengths to my adult role as a mother ». Her words provide a focus to our work :

As a former resilient child, as a parent committed to teaching the lessons of resilience to her own children, and as a teacher of students with severe emotional disturbance, I know too well the devastating effects of what Seligman (1991) refers to as learned helplessness…But we can teach many of the skills of resilience. Our children’s lives depend on our belief in ourselves and in them, as demonstrated through our words and action (Rockwell, 1994, 13).

Our beliefs and convictions can be powerful healing tools. We can play an important role in supporting resilience and the road to non-violence. Our efforts in assuring a support system can be instrumental in providing an opportunity for hope…and for healing.

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