Understanding Family Violence: Treating and Preventing Partner, Child, Sibling, and Elder Abuse


Vernon R. Wiehe

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    Violence in the family is a serious problem. Daily, the media present accounts of partner, child, or elder abuse. Another type of family violence, sibling abuse, shown by research to even be more prevalent than partner and child abuse, is rarely mentioned but often is excused as “normal sibling rivalry” (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980).

    The purpose of this book is to acquaint readers with a theoretical understanding of family violence, the various ways the problem is being treated, and how each type of family violence may be prevented. The book is directed to undergraduate and graduate students in fields of study such as psychology, sociology, nursing, social work, family studies, and pastoral counseling. I will collectively refer in the text to these students in these various fields of study as “mental health professionals.” Although the book is not intended to be a “how to” guide for clinicians working with perpetrators and victims of family violence, those engaging in an empirically based practice where their interventions flow from their theoretical understanding of the problem will find the book's contents helpful in working with abusive individuals and families.

    Heavy emphasis is placed in the book on research because I often find individuals working in the field of family violence who do not have a sound empirical understanding of the problem but, rather, are “flying by the seat of their pants.” In some instances, these individuals are attracted to the work because of their own past history of being a victim of abuse from a parent, mate, or sibling. Their knowledge is largely based on their personal experiences, which may not be typical. In other instances, those working in the field are often so overburdened with the demand for services that they cannot keep abreast of the research that is occurring. In still other situations, an understanding of family violence may be based on the portrayal of the problem in the media, which may overdramatize certain aspects of the problem. A sound theoretical understanding based on research must be the foundation of our understanding of the various types of family violence, of our interventions in treating the problem, and of our efforts to prevent it.

    Here I digress a bit to discuss the importance of theory in understanding a social problem such as family violence. I liken the use of theory to the function of a magnifying glass. Imagine that you have a piece of paper in front of you with such very small print that when you attempt to read the message on the paper, the paper becomes a blur of ink. However, when you look at the small print through a magnifying glass, the blur of ink begins to take the shape of letters and the combination of letters forms words and the words come together in sentences that present to you a message that you can both read and understand.

    Theory acts in a somewhat similar fashion. Human behavior is very complex. Situations of family violence—for example, an adult male sexually abusing a small child—reflect the complexity of human behavior. Unfortunately, when we experience the dissonance of trying to understand a problem, such as child sexual abuse, we often resort to “myths” or stereotypical ways of thinking about the problem that may cause us to incorrectly understand the problem or to inappropriately intervene. A theoretical understanding of the problem based on research can help prevent this from occurring. Thus, a heavy emphasis has been placed on theory in this book.

    What is theory? I like to think of theory as a framework, as a foundation for understanding human behavior. In the social sciences we avoid the use of the word cause when trying to understand human behavior because of its complexity. Rather than trying to identify what causes, for example, child sexual abuse, we prefer to talk about factors related to or associated with the problem. Here is where theory enters the picture. Research or the application of scientific methodology enables us to identify factors that may be related to or associated with a problem. Two levels of theory are presented in the text. In the opening chapter, several general theories of aggression are presented because family violence is aggression of one person against another. In subsequent chapters, as the various types of family violence are discussed—child, partner, elder, sibling abuse—more specific theories in the form of factors identified from research that are related to each of these types of abuse are identified.

    What purpose do these theories serve? First, theories help in understanding human behavior, or in this instance, the various types of family violence; and second, theories provide clues for intervention and prevention. Remember the example of the magnifying glass. Reading about an incident of an adult male sexually abusing a child may be revolting and disgusting. Your sense of decency and respect for others may cause you to say, “How could someone do this to a small child?” Your response may cause you to lash out in anger against the perpetrator. Viewing this same incident from a theoretical perspective helps you begin to understand the incident. Do not confuse understanding the problem with condoning the problem. Your attempt to understand the factors contributing to a perpetrator sexually abusing a child does not mean that you approve of the behavior. Thus, the first purpose that theory serves is to enable us to understand complex human behavior. (This understanding changes over time as new research occurs. Thus, it is important for mental health professionals to stay current in their knowledge of family violence by reading journals and attending professional conferences.) The second purpose that theory serves is that as we develop a theoretical understanding of a problem or become aware of factors that are related to or associated with a problem, we begin to receive clues or indicators for ways we can intervene in the problem or prevent the problem from occurring. Let's go back to the sexual abuse perpetrator. Research shows, for example, a factor that is related to some men who sexually abuse children is that they themselves were victims of sexual abuse. This theoretical knowledge suggests that a possible component for the treatment of some sexual abusers may be therapy that gives perpetrators an opportunity to talk about their own victimization, which they in turn are repeating on others.

    Four types of family violence are discussed: child, partner, elder, and sibling abuse. Three forms in which each of these types of violence appear in families are presented: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Child neglect, while a form of child abuse, is not discussed in this book because it is not considered a form of family violence. Child neglect is an act of omission rather than commission. This is not to deny, however, that child neglect is itself a serious societal problem.

    I relied heavily in the chapter on child abuse on an earlier publication titled Working With Child Abuse and Neglect (Wiehe, 1996) and in the chapter on sibling abuse on my book, Sibling Abuse: The Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma (Wiehe, 1997b).

    Key terms defined throughout the book are shown in boldface to emphasize their importance as relevant elements to incorporate in discussions on family violence in general or on specific types of abuse.

    May the book give you a better understanding of family violence as a social problem in society as well as its treatment and prevention. After reading this book, you may even wish to consider working to combat this problem by volunteering in one of the many social service agencies dedicated to helping survivors and preventing others from becoming victims of family violence.

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    About the Author

    Vernon R. Wiehe is Professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. After receiving a master's degree from the University of Chicago, he did postgraduate work in the Program of Advanced Studies in Social Work at Smith College and received his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.

    His research and writing are primarily in the field of family violence. His books include Sibling Abuse: The Hidden Physical, Emotional and Sexual Trauma; Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive; Working With Child Abuse and Neglect; A Primer; Brother/Sister Hurt: Recognizing the Effects of Sibling Abuse; and Intimate Betrayal: The Trauma of Acquaintance Rape. He is also author of over 45 articles in professional journals.

    He is a frequently cited author and lecturer who has lectured extensively on the subject of family violence both in the United States and abroad and has appeared as a guest on numerous U.S. radio and TV talk shows.

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