Fighting Family Violence With
Cindy Miller-Perrin received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Washington State University and is currently Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Pepperdine University. Her research areas include child-clinical psychology, development, and medical/health psychology. She is widely published in the areas of child sexual abuse, prevention, and physiological psychology, and is co-author of a textbook titled Family Violence Across the Lifespan. She is also teaches a course on Positive Psychology at Pepperdine.
In this 2010 interview, Gina Stepp asked Miller-Perrin about family violence from a preventive perspective.
GS The first thing I want to do is to synchronize our terminology for my readers. What behaviors constitute family violence—any or all kinds of aggression, or only particular types?
CMP There are many possible categories: We talk about intimate partner abuse, typically between a husband and wife. That could take a variety of forms, such as physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse. And then you also have different forms of child maltreatment including physical abuse, sexual abuse, child neglect—there’s also psychological maltreatment. Then within each of those categories you would have different ways of defining them.
Physical abuse is defined in a number of different ways. It varies by state, it varies by profession—a lawyer might define it differently than a psychologist. But in general, physical abuse is intentionally inflicting physical harm.
GS When it comes to sibling bullying, for instance—are there types of aggression that don’t fall under the term “family violence.”
CMP That’s a good example because there’s a lot of controversy over whether physical interactions between siblings should be defined as abusive. If one sibling hits another sibling—that’s so common that to call that abuse is really a misuse of the term. There is debate on that, but in general—at least mental health professionals would define interactions between siblings as abusive if it meets certain criteria.
GS I assume that sibling bullying, or even whole family bullying in some cases, would have to be defined as a perpetual mode of interaction or pattern of behavior.
CMP Yes, and some of the other things people would look at include whether or not there’s a power disparity between the siblings or other family members. So if it’s a five-year-old and a six-year-old, where there’s not much physical difference between them and not much a power differential, then maybe that would be considered more “normal.” But it might also fall under the category of child abuse if a parent is chronically not present or providing appropriate intervention.
GS In that situation, other members of the family that don’t intervene would be perceived by the victim as being complicit in the bullying.
GS Taking family violence as a whole, do you get a sense of how prevalent the problem is?
CMP It’s very common. The estimates vary but it’s likely that all of us are affected by the problem in one way or another, either having experienced one form of family violence personally or knowing someone who has experienced. It’s one of the most pervasive social problems.
GS In your textbook you and your colleagues used the example of a man, Kree Kirkman, who bulldozed the home of his family in revenge for his wife leaving him. The reaction of the community was to applaud him for that action.
CMP Yes. I think American society, at least, in general, is very willing to accept a high level of violence, and this gives us a distorted view. We see it as normal because it’s so pervasive. We see it in movies and on television, so we tolerate it within families. Although I do think the problem is improving. As we become more aware of it, people are recalibrating what they see as normal. Historically speaking, it was normal for a man to view his wife and children as his property, which can contribute to abuse. Over time that has lessened and we’re beginning to see things differently and are not accepting some of these atrocious ways of interacting within the family.
GS If it’s improving and yet it’s still very pervasive, that gives a rather alarming historical picture.
CMP Yes. It’s kind of a frightening thing to think about.
GS Are there common characteristics in abusers?
CMP There are some commonalities, certainly across forms of child maltreatment. A lot of the families affected have alcohol and drug problems, and that’s also true within spouse abuse. They’re more likely to come from socio-economically disadvantaged homes. They’re more likely to have multiple stressors in their lives.
You can’t really say there’s a “type” of parent who would abuse their child, with maybe one exception: One risk factor that seems common to all types of child abusers is a childhood history of being mistreated. If you’re mistreated as a child you’re less likely to learn appropriate ways of parenting and you would be more likely to perpetuate those same patterns when you become a parent. And that would also be true within spouse-abusing families. The spouse who abuses has not had good role models. Sometime they’ve been abused themselves, sometimes they’ve witnessed abuse between their own parents. That would be the one factor on an individual level that you see across all kinds of family maltreatment.
As far as neglectful parents go, most people believe there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with them. The problem usually seems to be that they don’t have the resources that they need to be a good parent. You tend to see neglect in families that are socio-economically disadvantaged where there are lower levels of education and other limitations.
GS Where there is active child abuse beyond neglect, is the same person likely also to abuse a spouse or elderly parent?
CMP Yes—it isn’t always the case, but there is significant overlap. Families who are violent in one way tend to be violent in multiple ways.
GS If the violence in these families is so entrenched generationally, is it possible for them to unlearn these patterns of interaction?
CMP There are quite a few treatment interventions as well as preventive efforts that focus on helping families to break old patterns and to develop healthy ways of interacting. Of course, there are always those who are resistant to treatment but mental health professionals and social services have been able to help a lot of these families.
Some of the most effective treatment options use a variety of approaches—they would do individual work, they would also do group work, and they might include other ancillary programs that might be helpful in terms of financial and social resources.
GS What role does the larger community play on both sides of the issue—in perpetuating family violence or in preventing it?
CMP We certainly could argue that society plays a large part through the general cultural acceptance of violence in all its forms. The media is a good example of that. Not only movies and television but video games as well. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with any particular games, but there’s one called Grand Theft Auto that promotes horrendous abuse toward women. And of course there are lyrics in popular songs that promote violence, particularly toward women. When society condones the widespread distribution of these materials it communicates acceptance. On the other side, society can also do things to counteract that in various ways. Public ad campaigns and public service announcements can be helpful—but we have a very long way to go. There have been public campaigns for instance in Scandanavian countries focusing on the use of positive parenting practices in the place of spanking—and these have been very successful in changing attitudes.
GS So, you’re saying it’s helpful to replace negative behaviors with positive behaviors. You teach a class on positive psychology, don’t you? How does a strength-based approach inform our understanding of how to prevent family violence?
CMP The focus of the field of psychology is shifting a bit. We’ve tended to focus on the negative: the pain, the suffering, abnormal behavior, problem behavior—and that’s good and that’s needed—but if you’re familiar with the field of positive psychology, it encourages us to broaden our focus to include helping people with deficits regain skills for positive behaviors that bring them back to normal. But we should also be focusing on people who are essentially “normal” but may not be achieving their highest potential. In approaching family violence the focus would mostly be on bringing people out of their deficits. But in general, helping families engage positively and helping individual members achieve their greatest potential would certainly help counteract some of the violence that occurs in families.
In my class, we typically address the character strengths and virtues that enhance people’s sense of well-being and satisfaction in life. So, for example we might cover emotional intelligence, self control, hope, optimism, positive thinking, love, forgiveness, humility, gratitude, appreciation, spirituality and transcendence and life meaning and purpose.
GS Resilience-building factors. I would think the perpetrators could use some of these skills to replace their violent behaviors, but the victims may also need them to withstand the trauma of the abuse.
CMP Yes. I think that’s an accurate way to describe them. This would be consistent with more of a prevention model. If you can build up resilience in everyone you can prevent some of these problems developing in the first place.
GS You mentioned earlier that lower socioeconomic status and stressors can be correlated to family violence. Some of the critics of positive psychology might argue that we can’t expect people in low income areas to apply a resilience-building approach in the light of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Can people think about friendship, respect, morality and some of the other things you mentioned if they can’t even eat or provide for other basic survival needs?
CMP That argument might be somewhat defensible but there are a lot of examples in history where people in dire circumstances, and certainly less than optimal circumstances, may even be more likely to develop some of those resilience skills. One thing that comes to mind is the black community in the United States. Even under terrible oppression they remained resilient through their faith and the hope that brought them: the idea that although they were living in an adverse world, it was not their final resting place. So I think you could make both arguments. I’m not really willing to give up on the ability of human beings to maintain hope even in dire circumstances. It’s not easy, obviously. But I don’t think it’s impossible.
But if we really want to solve the problem of family violence, two of the most important things that need to happen are, first—as a culture—we need to work on being less accepting of the different forms of violence, even what we would call “normal” violence within the media and within the family. And second, we need to focus on prevention efforts in the form of education for parents and couples about appropriate ways of interacting with each other. They need to be taught how to focus on rewarding positive behavior rather than on punishing negative behavior within the family, and supported with resources to combat the social and economic stressors that contribute to violence.