University of Rochester

New Study Begins on How Children Handle Effects of Domestic Violence

March 25, 2005

A five-year study under way by two University of Rochester psychologists will examine the effects of domestic violence on children’s development and family functioning.

The $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health was awarded recently to principal investigator Patrick Davies of the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology and co-principal investigator Dante Cicchetti, director of the Mt. Hope Family Center and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Pediatrics at the University of Rochester.

Called Project Future (Families Understanding Toddlers’ Unique Relationship Experiences), the investigators and a staff of research assistants will follow 250 two-year-olds and their mothers over a two-year period. Because of the devastating effects of domestic violence on children, families, and society, researchers need to gather more information about how and why children exposed to domestic violence are at an increased risk for experiencing mental illness.

The researchers will specifically examine children’s development within the framework of emotional security theory. The main assumption of the theory is that domestic violence and accompanying functioning of the family increase child vulnerability to mental illness by undermining the child’s sense of security and safety in the family. Parenting abilities, interpersonal relationships, and family characteristics also will be studied to determine the impact they may have on a child’s mental health and general functioning when a child is exposed to domestic violence.

Both psychological and biological (neuroendocrine) functioning of the children will be examined. The results will be used to inform social policy and prevention initiatives for young children and families.

The project is being conducted at Mt. Hope Family Center, located in the Corn Hill neighborhood of Rochester. Founded in 1979, Mt. Hope Family Center conducts research in the area of developmental psychopathology and provides intervention directed toward fostering mental health in children and adults, preventing child abuse and neglect, and promoting positive family relationships. The center is also a training site for future practitioners and research scientists.