CWRU researchers look at sibling relationships and maternal warmth to help abused children

Headshot of Mandel School faculty Megan Holmes
Megan Holmes

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have begun studying 1,700 children from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) database to understand how mothers and siblings can protect abused children who have witnessed family violence.

“I want to focus on their positive characteristics in protecting children and eventually create an intervention that builds on those strengths,” said Megan R. Holmes, assistant professor of social work at Case Western Reserve’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Holmes is leading the two-year project, “The Longitudinal Effects of Family Violence: Sibling factors and Maternal Parenting.” The study builds on Holmes’ investigations into intimate partner violence (IPV) between adults in the home and how it affects children, both physically and psychologically.

All the children selected from the NSCAW database have been investigated by Child Protective Services for some form of maltreatment.

The survey’s information provides researchers with first-hand accounts by parents, teachers and caseworkers about the children’s circumstances. Each child has had data collected about his or her family life at four different times from birth to 11 years old.

Holmes received $158,500 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health (grant # 1R03HD078416-01A1) to support the project. She will be assisted by Adam Perzynski, assistant professor of medicine, and Sonia Minnes, associate professor of social work at the Mandel School.

The project will examine the relationship between child abuse (neglect, physical and/or psychological mistreatment), sibling dynamics (birth order, gender and number of children in the family), maternal warmth (nurturing, support, love, concern, comfort and trust) and the social and emotional adjustment of the abused children over time.

“Better sibling relationships have better outcomes,” Holmes said.

Holmes has witnessed how older children have protected and shielded younger family members from seeing and hearing violence in the homes. As a result, however, the older children tend to have more mental health problems, she said.

Through her research, Holmes hopes to change that outcome and learn how:

  • Internal and external behavior patterns and social skills develop in IPV-exposed children;
  • Child abuse effects this behavioral and social development in IPV-exposed children;
  • Sibling factors can work to protect the abused child exposed to IPV in the home;
  • And what particularly in maternal warmth buffers children against witnessing and experiencing family violence.

Holmes also has a study underway examining the quality of sibling relationships, which she expects to contribute to designing an intervention that focuses on positive factors in those relationships.